A vaccine may finally be on the way, but we still have plenty of time left to worry about COVID-19. One danger you might not have thought of, even after all these months, is the possibility that even though you’re wearing a mask religiously, coronavirus might end up on your facial hair. If this sounds retroactively worrisome, well, there’s some good news! The bad news is you should have been concerned about something else entirely.
It’s not that getting the coronavirus on your beard is safe; scientists aren’t even sure how long the coronavirus stays a threat there. “We know from other viruses that virus particles can live on strands of hair, or clothing and cloth, which we call fomite transmission,” says dermatologist Dr. Anthony Rossi of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “But it’s not really well understood how long Covid-19 would last on things like these.”
The aforementioned good news is that getting the coronavirus from “fomites” like clothes and hair — as well as surfaces of things like door handles, packages etc. — seems to be less likely than originally thought, according to a recent study in The Lancet medical journal. “Luckily, we’re not seeing a lot of transmission from inanimate surfaces,” confirms Rossi. So if you’re concerned about touching an infected surface and transferring it to your beard by giving it a good scratch, and then getting infected from it, you can rest a bit easier (although that’s no reason to stop regularly washing your hands, of course).
The second way the coronavirus can get on your facial hair is by having someone who’s infected cough, breathe, or sneeze near you, expelling droplets into the air which could land on any facial hair that isn’t covered by your mask. “Virus transmission [this way] depends on multiple factors, including viral load,” explains Rossi, referring to the measurement of just how much of the virus is in the fluids released by the cough or sneeze. For your exposed beard to get hit with a massive load (so to speak), you’d need to be exposed to a lot of droplets (e.g., breaking the six-feet-apart rule or getting too near a sneeze). At this point, though, the main concern would obviously be your mouth and nostrils, rather than your beard.
But beards do present a different risk of infection, and it’s a huge one. “If you’re wearing a mask and you have a beard [sticking out], the mask isn’t going to make a proper seal around your face,” warns Rossi. “You really need a tight seal for a mask to be effective.” In fact, if any of your facial hair ranges outside your mask, the hairs are preventing the edge of your mask from lying flush around your face. If someone’s releasing those infected droplets into the air near you, you can inhale those misty, sometimes imperceptible droplets through the gaps between your skin and the mask that your facial hair creates.
Again, whether the coronavirus gets on your beard or not at that point is moot, no matter how long it might or might not stick around there. So either get a mask that completely accounts for your facial hair, or get a good shave.