- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a guide to facial hair and respirator mask fit that's way more detailed than you'd probably expect.
- It turns out the presence of any facial hair can impact the seal of your N95 respirator mask.
- Although the guide was originally intended for workers in hazardous conditions during No Shave November, it's gone viral amid the coronavirus outbreak.
⚠️ Update, March 4, 2020: Following the spread of this facial hair chart on social media, the CDC has updated the original blog post to reinforce that the image was not created as a guide during the coronavirus outbreak.
"This blog and infographic from 2017 are intended for workers who wear respirators at work," the disclaimer reads.
No matter what style of facial hair you sport, it's our humble opinion that all beards are beautiful. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, disagrees.
Not all facial hair is created equal, according to a CDC infographic on the best facial hair styles suited to N95 respirator masks, which are intended to help shield you from airborne particles. In response to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) viral outbreak that began earlier this year in Wuhan, China, the image has made waves on Twitter this week.
You might think a master guide to 36 styles of facial hair means the CDC knows more about beards than barbers do. But upon further inspection, some of the advice is a bit counterintuitive.
A face with fresh stubble on it, for example, gets a big red X from the CDC. That'll apparently mess with the seal on your mask. But isn't that better than, say, a bushy walrus mustache? Not so, according to the graphic.
Predictably, the good people of Twitter have resorted to making fun of the masks more than heeding the CDC's advice. Plus, the users point out the infographic features only men, leading some to call the graphic discriminatory against people who identify as non-binary.
This CDC guide to which facial hair styles are acceptable during a pandemic is my excuse to grow a youth pastor soul patch pic.twitter.com/8Fy67GYBA3— gregory (@popLOCKEdropit) February 26, 2020
The CDC did not return a request for comment.
A Hairy Problem
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an N95 respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small airborne particles down to 0.3 microns (one micron = one millionth of a meter). Gases, vapors, and other particles in the air that respirator masks are meant to prevent the wearer from breathing in will take the path of least resistance to bypass the respirators filter.
So what's the problem with your beard? Can't that just act like another barrier?
Not exactly. While human hair "appears to be very thin to the naked eye," according to the CDC, it's actually much larger in size than the particles you want to avoid inhaling. N95 masks protect you from airborne particles down to 0.3 microns, but hair thickness ranges from 1/1500 to 1/500 of an inch in diameter. So if we assume each of your beard hairs are .002 inches thick in diameter, that translates to 50.8 microns. That's going to create a COVID-19 size entryway.
"Therefore, the vast majority of particles, gases, and vapors follow the air stream right through the facial hair and into respiratory tract of the wearer," according to the CDC post. "In fact, some studies have shown that even a day or two of stubble can begin to reduce protection."
Overall, the CDC reports that any presence of facial hair that gets in the way of a respirator mask's seal can cause 20 to 1,000 times more leakage as compared to a clean-shaven mask-wearer.
The Perfect Fit
The facial hair infographic dates back to a November 2017 CDC blog post, just in time for the hairy #NoShaveNovember workers who would need to understand the ins and outs of donning a respirator mask in hazardous environments.
"Ensuring the respirator seal is a vital part of respiratory protection practices. Facial hair that lies along the sealing area of a respirator, such as beards, sideburns, or some mustaches, will interfere with respirators that rely on a tight facepiece seal to achieve maximum protection," per the post. "Facial hair is a common reason that someone cannot be fit tested."
But here's the thing: Construction workers are subject to annual fit tests to ensure the seals on their masks are correct—and that they know how to wear them. Civilians, on the other hand—like the thousands of people in Europe and Asia currently dealing with the coronavirus outbreak—don't get the same training.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adds that facial hair isn't going to be your only issue while fitting your mask on correctly.
"If the respirator's seal leaks, contaminated air will be pulled into the facepiece and can be breathed in," OSHA writes on its website. "Therefore, anything that interferes with the respirator seal is not permitted when using this type of respirator. This could include facial hair, earrings, head scarves, wigs, and facial piercings."
Thankfully, the CDC does have some guidance on how to conduct your own user seal check, which is especially vital to do if you have any form of facial hair whatsoever, as even some of the approved styles could vary from person to person and interrupt the seal.
💡Check for your perfect mask seal. There are two kinds of tests that you can conduct: a positive pressure or negative pressure check.
During a positive pressure seal check, you should exhale gently while blocking the paths for exhaled breath to exit the facepiece. If your fit is correct, the facepiece will be slightly pressurized before increased pressure causes outward leakage.
During a negative pressure seal check, you must inhale sharply while blocking the paths for inhaled breath to enter the facepiece. If this version of the check is successful, your facepiece will slightly collapse under the negative pressure that is created.
The CDC recommends that you commence these checks each time you put a respirator mask on.
Okay, so what if you have a full beard that just doesn't work with your respirator mask? Well, now's the perfect time to try out that soul patch you've been trying to pull off since 1995. We fully support you.
You Might Also Like