Do beards actually break the seal of gas masks?
"They may have anecdotal evidence of 1 to 5 people who they see fail the fit test, but that can’t be extrapolated to hundreds of thousands of airmen.”
For decades, U.S. military leaders have prohibited service members from growing beards, arguing that facial hair not only disrupts a clean, professional appearance, but also interferes with the seal of a gas mask, oxygen mask or other devices that service members wear to survive hazardous environments. While many military leaders defending the beard prohibition have repeated the claim that beards break gas mask seals, one Air Force doctor has found no direct scientific evidence to support it.
“It’s an unsubstantiated claim,” said Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie, a dermatologist who last year published a study on the beard prohibition’s discriminatory effect on Black airmen. While supporters of current Air Force policy “may have anecdotal evidence of one to five people who they see fail the fit test,” he said, “that can’t be extrapolated to hundreds of thousands of airmen.”
Anecdotal evidence is useful, Ritchie said, but in his years of analyzing the issue he has yet to find an up-to-date, scientifically rigorous study showing that neatly trimmed facial hair impacts the seals of military gas masks.
“In the scientific community, anecdotes are the lowest level of evidence for making recommendations,” the doctor said. “A lot of the consensus papers and position papers on this rely on expert opinion, but none of it is based on an actual scientific study like ‘hey, let’s have people put a M-50 mask on and study that.’”
More scientific evidence is needed to inform the military’s grooming standards, Ritchie said, because the current policies have a discriminatory effect on service members of color. Adhering to the Air Force’s prohibition on beards is difficult for many Black airmen who have a medical condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae. Also known as razor bumps, PFB is a skin condition that makes shaving painful and can lead to permanent scarring if the skin is not allowed to heal. Men of any race can have PFB, but the condition is commonly found among Black men.
The Air Force issues shaving waivers to airmen who, for medical or religious reasons, are not able to shave in line with regulations, and many airmen with PFB receive waivers. However, those waivers might harm the airman’s career prospects due to a long-standing cultural aversion to facial hair in the military.
“Male beard growth beyond that allowed by USAF regulation can cast members in a negative light as it can be considered unprofessional,” wrote Ritchie and his fellow researchers in their study, which found an association between shaving waivers and a “significantly longer” time between promotions.
The promotion system is not necessarily inherently racially biased, the authors cautioned. But it is biased against facial hair, “which will likely always affect the promotions of Blacks/African-Americans disproportionately because of the relatively higher need for shaving waivers in this population.”
You don’t have to suffer from PFB to hate the military’s current policies against facial hair. Unofficial Air Force social media pages are filled with posts written by airmen who are sick of shaving their faces every day and wonder why they have to keep doing it. Many are familiar with the argument that beards prevent a gas mask seal, making it even more odd that there is no direct evidence to back up the claim.
“I won’t speculate, but suffice to say I don’t know,” where the belief that facial hair interferes with a gas mask seal comes from, Ritchie said.
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There are some clues out there. While Ritchie could not find an exact date for when beards were first prohibited in the military, he said those policies began to be implemented after World War I, when gas warfare and gas masks emerged on the battlefield. There have been some exceptions. For example, according to U.S. Naval Institute News, sailors were allowed to wear short, trimmed hair, beards and mustaches from the 1880s to the 1960s. The policy was loosened for sailors serving on submarines or in cold climates due to the shortage of freshwater for shaving and the cold temperature, respectively.
In the 1970s, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt loosened the Navy’s facial hair policy even further because he thought it would make the Navy seem less square, thereby improving recruiting and retention. But in 1984, then-CNO Adm. James Watkins banned beards entirely, claiming that they prevented proper seals with emergency breathing apparatuses, which is especially important given how sailors train extensively to fight fires aboard their ships.
“However, the blunt-speaking Secretary John Lehman said that it was simply due to aesthetics,” USNI News wrote. “Lehman said that master chiefs had been complaining that beards made the Navy look ‘extremely un-uniform’ so it was decided that having clean-shaven sailors would bring ‘a general sharpening of appearance.’”
This led to sailors shaving their heads in protest and threatening to send their whiskers to Watkins, USNI News wrote, but the policy remained. On the Army side, it is widely written that the service began prohibiting facial hair to fit with gas mask seals during and after World War I, though this reporter could not find official documents to support this. But more than a century later, there appears to be little direct evidence that links facial hair to poor gas mask fit. While there are plenty of studies that show the deleterious effect of facial hair on gas mask or respirator seals in the civilian world, there are no studies Ritchie could find that gauge how neatly trimmed beards hold up in modern-day M-50 military gas masks.
“These studies are for the civilian population, where there’s a range of thickness, curliness and length that may influence the results,” he said. “It’s tough to look at that and say ‘hey, case closed.’”
In contrast to the civilian world, airmen with shaving waivers are allowed a quarter-inch of facial hair at most, so a study would have to be limited to that length or below for it to be applicable in the Air Force, Ritchie explained.
Still, the United States military is not the only one with men in its ranks. In fact, several other NATO countries such as Canada, Germany and Norway permit service members to wear beards. Surely they must have studied the effect of facial hair on gas masks? Apparently not, said Ritchie, who is stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany and so has had plenty of chances to chat with NATO partners about their whisker policies.
“They also can’t point to actual studies,” Ritchie said, “but they can point to lived experience.”
The NATO officers who spoke with Ritchie reported seeing no negative impact of facial hair on oxygen masks for air crew, he said. The airman added that the Royal Canadian Air Force has also had zero physiological events related to beards since the Canadian military first allowed service members to sport them in 2018. Beards also have not been a problem for students from foreign militaries who go through the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Ritchie said.
“The Aircrew Flight Equipment folks at Sheppard we spoke to have had zero problems fitting a bearded pilot,” he said. “We’ve had Sikhs go through that program and people from NATO who have beards for personal preference.”
These anecdotes all regard oxygen masks for aviators, so it would be too bold to extrapolate that the same rings true for gas masks, Ritchie explained. Still, it’s a start, and there is also a recent study from the civilian world that could indicate positive outcomes for beard-hopefuls in the U.S. military. The 2018 study showed that facial hair negatively influences the fit factor for half-face negative-pressure respirators as the hair gets longer and more dense. However, beard-wearers can still “achieve adequate fit factor scores even with substantial facial hair in the face seal area,” the study authors wrote. In fact, 98% of the study participants who had an eighth-inch of beard passed the fit test. Those results are encouraging because the respirators used in the study are pretty close to the M-50 gas masks used in the military today in terms of material and fit, Ritchie said.
“I would consider this to be the closest scientific evidence that we have to answer the relevant question we’re facing,” he explained.
Even some clean-shaven service members struggle with sealing a gas mask or oxygen mask. One Air Force C-130 aviator told Task & Purpose that aircrew flight equipment specialists have a machine that tests the aircrew’s oxygen masks “and it can be a huge pain making sure that thing is sealed up perfectly on your face,” he said.
“I have always been clean-shaven and it can be a challenge,” he added, and Ritchie has seen the same problem in his research.
“Not everyone with a shaved face has a good seal,” he said. “Different kinds of faces affect the seals.”
While no scientific study has established the minimum facial hair length that controls PFB, Ritchie has found through his clinical experience of having treated thousands of airmen with the condition that one-eighth inch is almost always sufficient. The Air Force can conduct studies testing that length’s effect on a gas mask seal. As it turns out, a study on facial hair and gas masks would be simple to execute.
A study of this nature would require only 100 to 150 service members, Ritchie said. Participants would be asked to grow facial hair to a given length, maybe a quarter of an inch. They would be fit-tested for a gas mask and given a detailed assessment on the exact amount of air passing through the seal. Then the participants would be given a clipper, trim down to an eighth-inch, repeat, and then do it all again one more time while clean-shaven. The good thing about the study is that it controls for differences in facial structure.
“If people have problems fit testing while clean-shaven, then that might mean facial hair is not the problem,” Ritchie explained.
Now the only thing left to do is to get the Air Force to conduct a study. Ritchie said that his Air Force Times op-ed on the subject in October 2021 got the attention of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Group, which works to make the service more inclusive. Several senior leaders of the branch also support the work Ritchie is doing, he said. But it is not clear at this point when that support will translate into actually pulling off a study.
“We don’t have to hire RAND or Booz Allen Hamilton to do it, but the Air Force needs to want it to happen,” he said.
If the Air Force does follow through with a study, it could be the first service to do so: Ritchie said he was not aware of any other service conducting such a test. Still, even if the Air Force conducts a study; and if the study finds that trim eighth-inch beards do not affect gas mask seals; and if the Air Force abolishes its prohibition on beards, there would still be decades of institutional bias against beards standing in the way. Even one of the branch’s most beloved former senior leaders, retired Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, said he spent 29 of his nearly 32-year career opposed to facial hair in his service.
“I was the typical senior leader chief that didn’t think airmen with a shaving waiver belonged in the front office,” he said in April on a panel discussion on male grooming standards in the Air Force. “I had opportunities to hire all kinds of folks and I was adamant about not hiring somebody with a shaving waiver, just because I fell into that category of ‘this is Air Force policy, it’s not professional.’”
Wright said he took that position despite suffering from shaving irritation himself. He eventually learned how to shave in a way that would not irritate his skin, so he believed that if airmen with shaving waivers just did what he had done then they could be clean-shaven too.
“I was willfully ignorant about the impact it was having on young Black men,” he said. “Some of it was because I just ignored it, some of it was because I wanted these young men to do what I did: just suck it up and figure it out and you’ll be fine.”
It was only until his time as the top enlisted leader of the Air Force that he realized how, for some airmen, being clean-shaven is impossible without immense pain and skin damage. That realization, along with new data from scientists like Ritchie, convinced Wright to make “a complete 180 on the issue,” he said. The tough part is that most people with power in the Air Force have not made that pivot.
Changing policy, “that actually is the easy part,” Wright said. “The real challenge is ‘how do you change the culture, not just in the Air Force but in the services period.’”
The leaders who are biased against beards in the Air Force are not going to figure out how to work with a new policy allowing beards, Wright cautioned. Instead, “they’re going to shake their heads and find a way to write people with beards off.”
A mere eight days after the panel, a White technical sergeant at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona allegedly texted a Black senior airman with a shaving waiver saying that he was not being considered for a position because “the Air Force is looking for somebody of white complexion,” according to a text exchange shared on the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/snco/nco.
“We personally do not feel as if you are a good choice for the squadron,” the technical sergeant said. “You currently have a shaving waiver which isn’t a professional image, and I think the air force is looking for somebody of white complexion and with the image that the air force needs.”
The matter is currently under investigation by base leadership, but it seems to underline Wright’s point that many people with power in the Air Force will find ways to oppose airmen with beards even if those beards are allowed in the service. That opposition may not always be because leadership is explicitly racist. Like Wright, they might just be working as they’ve been taught within an institution that was built and is still largely led by one group of people.
“The Air Force is run by old White men,” Wright said. “Even if we allow airmen to wear beards, it’s going to be mostly Black men who wear beards. And even if it’s within the policy, commanders will still find a reason to not hire them, to not select them for opportunities, for promotion.”
Still, today’s military culture may not be tomorrow’s. One of those self-identified ‘old white guys,’ Maj. Gen. Kenneth Bibb, is proof of that. At the panel discussion, Bibb recalled saying that airmen with shaving waivers could not “be at the gate, you’re not going to represent my wing … I don’t want you on my Honor Guard.
“Man that hurts now that I think about the words that I said and the guidance that I gave,” said Bibb, who commands the 18th Air Force.
Making airmen feel welcome is a readiness issue, Bibb said: it opens the branch up so that more people can help accomplish the Air Force mission. The general has asked airmen with shaving waivers to share their stories and the anguish they’ve experienced, including one technical sergeant who tried so hard to shave in order to conform with regulations that he needed surgery because he had damaged his face.
“I’ll be the first airman to grow a beard,” if the Air Force drops its prohibition of them, Bibb said. “I think we have to take away the stigmatism that goes with this. Even if you change the rules, if we don’t see leaders that have beards,” then there will still be a stigma.
Wright agreed with the general.
“If generals and senior leaders are wearing beards and it becomes a normalized thing then maybe we weed out all of those folks who would find various ways to exclude folks anyway,” he said.
It’s a learning process, Ritchie said. The Air Force, and the modern military in general, was built a certain way around beards, and it might not have to be that way anymore.
“There’s a quote from Maya Angelou: do your best until you know better, and then do better,” he said. “Everybody should be able to change, to evolve positions and not feel like pride is in the way.”
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