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Respirators and Facial Hair: An Epic Battle of Style vs. Safety!

Updated: Jan 15



Credit: Canva Premium


The topic of respirators and beards can get a bit, well, hairy. But tight-fitting respirators, unfortunately, don't play well with facial hair.


If you're wearing a tight-fitting respirator with facial hair, you're at risk of exposure to harmful airborne contaminants, such as silica dust, that can cause life-threatening illnesses such as silicosis.


In this article, we'll delve into the problems posed when wearing respirators while sporting facial hair and explore options for those of you who don't want to depart with your beloved beards.


We figured a good 'ol FAQ session is a good way to go about this.


How do respirators work?


This topic can fill up an entire article (click here if you want to read it). But let's go over the basics for this post.


Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) refers to a wide range of devices designed to protect you from inhaling hazardous, airborne particles (such as silica dust), gases, vapours, fumes, smoke, or bioaerosols (such as viruses). They can be negative pressure, positive pressure, powered or unpowered, disposable or reusable.


Generally speaking, respirators work in one of two ways. The first is the removal of contaminants from the air through a filter or cartridge. These types of respirators are called air-purifying respirators (APRs). The second way that respirators protect is by supplying clean air from another source (such as a tank or wall supply). These types of respirators are called air-supplied respirators (think of firemen with their air tanks on their backs).


Air-purifying respirators use particulate filters (to catch dust and other particles such as viruses) and/or gas/vapour cartridges to protect the wearer from - you guessed it - chemicals, gases and vapours. The type of filter/cartridge needed depends on your workplace exposures.


At the heart of respiratory protection, specifically tight-fitting respirators, lies the need for an adequate seal between the respirator and the wearer's face.


So what do we mean when we say "tight-fitting" respirators? That's a respirator that has a facepiece that encompasses the perimeter around the nose, mouth, and chin. Tight-fitting respirators rely on an adequate seal between the facepiece and the face to provide the appropriate protection.


Facial hair can compromise this seal therefore these types of respirators can't be worn by people with beards and they have to be fit-tested.


Tight-fitting respirators can be disposable or reusable like the ones in the photo below. Both types are considered respirators as they rely on a tight-seal to provide adequate protection.

Why do I have to get my respirator fit tested? It looks and feels like it fits just fine!


Respirators are not one-size-fits-all.


Even when a respirator looks and feels like it fits, there could be tiny leaks around the facepiece and the face. When you're issued a respirator, it needs to be fit-tested. Once you know which respirator fits, you should only wear that brand/model/size. If you change respirators, whether it's a new brand, model or size, you need to be fit-tested in that mask (and annually thereafter).


You can read more about fit testing methods here.


The reason we worry about leaks, even minute ones, is the size of the airborne hazards in some workplace hazards. Airborne particulates, such as dust, smoke, chemicals, vapours and viruses, can be unimaginably small.


Really tiny things are measured in microns. One micron is 1/1000 of a millimetre. To put that in perspective, imagine a grain of beach sand. A single grain of sand is around 90 microns. And a single strand of human hair is around 70 microns in diameter. By comparison, dust particles (such as respirable crystalline silica) can be less than 2.5 microns. A virus, such as a coronavirus, is about 0.1 microns!


Graphic Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Typically, particles greater than 10 microns (think, achooo!!, pollen) get cleared away by defenses of the upper respiratory system (coughing, sneezing, mucous, tiny hairs called cilia). Particles less than 10 microns go straight past your upper respiratory tract and make their way down to your lungs.


Particles less than 2.5 microns go even deeper. They penetrate into the alveoli (air sacs) and can cross over into the bloodstream causing widespread, systemic effects in the body.


Credit: Queensland Government, Department of Natural Resources and Mines 2019



What's the deal with facial hair and respirators?


Facial hair compromises the seal between the respirator's silicone or rubber facepiece and the wearer's face. This results in tiny gaps that allow microscopic particles to enter around the edges of the mask into the breathing zone.


Research has shown that respirators worn with facial hair have 20 to 1000 times more leakage compared to that of a clean-shaven person.


A single hair width can hold your mask off the face like a steeple creating gaps for micron-sized particles to enter the breathing zone (see graphic above, credit: 3M).


Ridiculously small things - like silica dust and viruses - will look for the path of least resistance. And facial hair interfering with the respirator's seal creates that path for them.


We like visuals to get our point across so take a look at the photo below. This is a real image of silica dust (all those white bits) stuck to a single strand of human hair. You get an idea of just how small these particles can be. Submicron particles can adhere to facial hair and move into your breathing zone.


Contrary to popular belief, facial hair does not act as a "filter" to trap harmful particles.


Employers and employees are obligated to do everything practicable to stay safe at work. If you're wearing respirators with facial hair, you are at risk of being exposed to har



Credit: 3M



Is it possible to pass a fit test with facial hair?


The short answer is maybe. You might be able to pass a fit test with some stubble. However, the results will not be reflective of the fit that could be achieved on a clean-shaven face.


The other problem is this. If you have 1mm growth when you're fit tested and the next day you have 1.5mm growth, then you won't know if that extra length would cause you to fail the fit test. This is why being clean-shaven is a requirement under all international respiratory protection standards (such as the AS/NZS 1716:2009 and OSHA) when wearing a respirator, including when getting fit tested.


This being said, there is some subjectivity as to what is meant by "clean-shaven." Not every person can get a baby-face smooth finish with a razor. We take this into account when we're deciding who we can and can't test. Sometimes, a little stubble may be unavoidable for some people.


What about people who can't shave for religious/cultural/medical/personal reasons?


If you can't shave for religious/cultural/medical/personal reasons there are options.


  1. If you're in Victoria, you can enroll in the Singh Thatta trial at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. This trial is open to healthcare workers and clinical placement students.

  2. If you're a healthcare worker or clinical student in NSW, you may be able to use the Singh Thatta Technique.

  3. You can ask to be reassigned to an area where tight-fitting respirators are not required.

  4. You can wear a loose-fitting powered-air purifying respirator (PAPR)


If you're an employer, we recommend having a facial hair policy in place that is made available to all new hires. This way, there are no surprises when it comes time to wear tight-fitting respirators. We have free facial hair policy templates. If you want one, email us at info@fittestvic.com.au


Employers also need to explore options, such as loose-fitting PAPRs, for staff that can't/won't shave, especially for cultural or religious reasons.


Click here to read more about PAPRs.


What IS the Singh Thatta Technique?



Credit: Harbir Bhatia via SBS


The technique known as Singh Thatta involves individuals with facial hair using a wide elastic band to cover their beards, potentially enabling them to wear tight-fitting disposable respirators like N95s/P2s.


In Victoria, this technique isn't yet approved or endorsed.


The Victorian Department of Health is collaborating with The Royal Melbourne Hospital to conduct a trial aimed at assessing the safety, feasibility, and effectiveness of the Singh Thatta technique.


The trial procedure includes participants undergoing an initial quantitative fit test while utilising the elastic band, followed by a comprehensive 33-point skills and training session, which takes approximately 4 hours to complete.


If participants successfully complete the trial (and pass fit tests), Victorian healthcare services may authorise them to work or undertake placements in areas that have undergone a risk assessment.


Healthcare professionals and clinical placement students engaged have the opportunity to participate in the trial by contacting 9342 5590 or emailing RespiratoryProtectionProgram@mh.org.au.


BE AWARE: There are fit testers in Victoria, distinct from the RMH trial, who are conducting fit tests using the Singh Thatta technique despite its lack of approval in our state. This means that the results of such fit tests are not considered valid under the AS/NZS 1715:2009 standard (which states that wearers of tight-fitting respirators must be clean-shaven, including when getting a fit test).


For students and healthcare workers who are interested in trying out the Singh Thatta technique, we encourage you to enroll in the RMH trial to undergo proper skills training and to ensure that your fit test results will be accepted by Victorian health services. More info here: https://lnkd.in/gJ4Q5wyc


Unfortunately, the Singh Thatta technique is not being trialed nor endorsed for folks in industries like construction, mining, stonework, and engineering who need to wear tight-fitting respirators.



Are there ANY facial hairstyles I can sport?


Yep, check these out. As long as the hair doesn't cross the seal of the facepiece, you're good to go.


Credit: CDC


Wrapping Up


As we've explored throughout this post, a proper fit is essential for a respirator to provide maximum protection against airborne contaminants. Even a small gap caused by facial hair can permit harmful particles to infiltrate, rendering the respirator less effective and putting the wearer at risk.


If you can't shave for any reason, alternatives such as powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) or reassignments to areas/jobs where tight-fitting respirators aren't required must be considered.


And keep in mind, there are still many 'facial hairstyles' that can be worn with tight-fitting respirators. Check out the chart in the section above.


I bet you'd look like a legend in Lampshade. Or quite zesty in a Zappa.


If you need help or clarification around anything you've read here, email us at info@fittestvic.com.au. We're happy to help.


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All rights reserved. No part of this blog post may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

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