Out With The Beard, In With The Mask

Man shaving his face using a straight razor

Judge Lance Ito writes to us about coming to terms with the shave of a lifetime

Just over a decade ago, in 2009, I was part of a committee evaluating what protective and preventive measures might be necessary to meet the challenges of the H1N1 pandemic. Given the respiratory nature of that virus, we set about examining the protection offered by masks. 

We looked at what are now commonly known as surgical masks, NIOSH-approved N95 masks, and N95 and N99 industrial respirators. We learned that surgical masks offered some protection and that the NIOSH-approved masks and respirators were the better choice. We also learned fit and fitting are critical to effectiveness. I have worn a full beard for most of my adult life and I was mildly distressed to learn I might have to shave it off for any mask to be fully effective. While we were examining our options I happened to run into a longtime member of the Los Angeles Fire Department with significant HAZMAT experience. I asked him his impression of the standard advice from industrial health and safety organizations about the obstacles to proper sealing and filtering posed by facial hair. His response was simple and to the point: if you want to live, shave the beard. 

A disposable razor and a tube of shaving cream became essential parts of my emergency preparedness kit… along with a dozen vacuum-packed 3M N95 masks. Those familiar with my cautious nature would not be too surprised to learn I sought out mask and respirator suppliers and acquired a stash…. just in case.

Fast forward to the second week of March 2020 and I was pleased to be able to donate more than a hundred 3M and Gerson N95 masks, and a dozen 3M N95 and N99 half-face respirators and filters to a local hospital and to family members who are front line health care professionals. I was mildly surprised no one….NO ONE…wanted any of the industrial-grade face shields I had stashed. Masks, indeed. Gloves, yes. Hand sanitizer, yes. Face shields, no. Go figure.

In the initial fitting of my Castle Grade G9 respirator mask, I knew I would have to decide whether to shave off my beard. My wife of 39 years has never ever seen me without my beard. One of the joys of having a beard is NOT having to shave. But it was not a difficult decision: my age and current health challenges made it a no brainer. I was just sorry the Covid-19 restrictions meant my longtime barber could not do the honors. So with a brand new razor in hand, a hefty spritz of shaving gel, I am now clean-shaven with a tight mask seal. And I must repeat this chore each day. Bummer.

Stay sane everyone.