Correct mask fit is key, says SFU study on masks and facial hair

While bearded faces are slightly less shielded, faces with and without hair mostly failed fit tests

Boxes of N95 masks. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters.

Written by: Zach Siddiqui, Humour Editor

In a study on facial hair and face masks, SFU researchers have found that beardless faces are slightly better protected than bearded ones — but that the overall factor in protection for any face is securing the right fit. 

“If you can’t get a proper seal on a mask, there’s not much point to using one,” said Sherri Ferguson, Director of SFU’s Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit, in an SFU News release. “The N95 mask is designed to filter 95 per cent of particulate when worn properly but we found that less than half the participants achieved a proper seal in order to attain that percentage of filtration.”

In a Zoom interview with The Peak, Ferguson said she did not expect the N95 masks used in the study to perform “as poorly as they did,” and emphasized that an under 50% chance of passing a fit test applied uniformly to participants with or without facial hair. Despite this, Ferguson pointed out, federal regulations in Canada bar workers from being fit-tested at all unless they are bare-faced. Many Canadians, such as members of the Sikh faith, cannot shave for religious and/or cultural reasons.

Ferguson cited the SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) they tested as an example of a mask that “absolutely protected” wearers with or without facial hair. “I am confident that for bearded individuals, there is protection out there,” she concluded. Despite this, she still advised caution for people with facial hair looking to don masks.

“I think there needs to be more research into whether or not you can get sufficient protection with a beard. This is just one small study with a very few masks,” Ferguson said. Based on her findings, though, Ferguson “would not feel comfortable” telling a person with facial hair in an infectious setting to wear an N95, P100, or other half-mask, besides the respirators that come with an independent air supply. 

Ferguson has previously recommended that frontline workers perform a seal/fit test at the start of every shift. While speaking to The Peak, she elaborated that she did not deem this necessary for the non-frontline general public, particularly given the current need to conserve medical resources.

Ferguson’s team’s study was commissioned by Correctional Services of Canada (CSC), the federal agency which processes adult criminal offenders sentenced to two years or more in prison, to investigate mask efficacy for their staff. According to Ferguson, CSC reached out to them because Ferguson’s team had previously researched the efficacy of oxygen masks for Air Canada, particularly for pilots, after a Sikh pilot applied to the company.