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Why are pilots clean shaven?

Facial hair on pilots: Study busts myth

Date: September 21, 2018 Source: Simon Fraser University Summary: Do airline pilots need a clean-shaven face to ensure a proper seal on face masks during emergency cabin depressurization? A recent study offers an answer. Share:


A study conducted in Simon Fraser University’s hypobaric chamber has sealed Air Canada’s decision to allow pilots to sport facial hair.

Until last year, Air Canada and several other airlines required pilots to have a clean-shaven face. Air Canada reasoned that in the case of in-flight emergency, a clean-shaven face was necessary to ensure a proper seal on an oral-nasal face mask.

In fall 2016, however, the airline retained Sherri Ferguson, director of SFU’s Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit, and her team to research the efficacy of face masks on different beard lengths.

«We had two objectives,» says Ferguson. «First, we had to determine if present-day equipment used in the Canadian commercial airline industry delivers sufficient oxygen to protect a bearded pilot from hypoxia during an emergency cabin depressurization scenario.»

Hypoxia occurs when the body does not receive enough oxygen and can cause damage to the brain and other organs minutes after symptoms appear and render a pilot incapacitated or unconscious.

«Secondly, we had to find out whether the mask provides sufficient protection against carbon monoxide and toxic fumes should the cabin become smoke-filled from fire.»

The researchers divided research participants into three groups: those with a small amount of facial hair such as stubble (less than 0.5 cm in length), those with medium sized-beards and those with long beards (up to 40 cm).

Wearing masks supplied by Air Canada, the participants were put into a hypobaric chamber, which simulated altitudes from 10,000 to 25,000 ft above sea level. The researchers measured the participants’ oxygen saturation levels at every altitude change, because a drop in the oxygen saturation levels would indicate the masks are leaky and unable to maintain a proper seal.

For the second test, the researchers used stannic chloride, which causes watery eyes as well as a burning sensation in the lungs, in order to create conditions similar to fire smoke.

The researchers found no adverse effects on bearded subjects within the two parameters of the study, and that the masks maintained protection, irrespective of varying amounts of facial hair.

The study provided the basis for Air Canada to change its facial hair policy for aircrew and now permits a maximum length of 1.25 cm and neatly trimmed.

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        What do the Armed Forces say you can and can’t do with your facial hair?

        Beards military regulations CREDIT BFBS

        Beards military regulations CREDIT BFBS

        Military policy on beards can be a divisive topic, with suggestions of relaxing policy to promote inclusivity leaving many current and former members of the Armed Forces bristling over a lack of discipline and lowering standards.

        In September 2019, the Royal Air Force for the first time allowed its personnel to grow beards under new rules introduced in an effort to broaden its recruitment pool and promote inclusivity, but it insists that personnel still have to maintain high standards of appearance.

        The British Army’s policy on facial hair has also been under the public spotlight, especially following suggestions that potential recruits could be put off joining up because they cannot sport a beard under existing policies.

        • Meet the Pioneer Sergeant: One of the few Army roles allowed a beard on parade
        • Soldier’s ponytail ignites social media storm over new hair policy
        • Army and RAF reveal new rules on hair

        Britain is not the only country to examine its policy on facial hair, with the Canadian National Defence announcing its own relaxing of rules on beards, and reports in the United States that its military policy had been challenged by a soldier wishing to wear a beard due to his beliefs as a Norse pagan.

        In Britain, the services’ policy on dress regulations is «routinely» reviewed – a point that came to light following comments by Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Emmerson who responded to a letter in Soldier magazine, suggesting the British Army’s policy could change at some point to reflect changing attitudes.

        Royal Air Force personnel were allowed to grow beards under new rules introduced in September 2019.

        What does the Ministry of Defence say about facial hair and appearance?

        British Army

        An Army spokesperson said:

        «There has been no change in Army policy regarding beards, which can only be grown with the Commanding Officer’s authority. Exceptions are usually only granted on medical or religious grounds, or where tradition permits.»

        The regulations state:

        Hair length

        Hair is to be groomed such that its length does not reach to the collar or onto the ears.

        The same applies where twists, locks or cornrows are worn unless worn for religious reasons.

        Beard or no beard?

        Men are to be clean-shaven but moustaches and beards may be worn.

        If a moustache is worn, it is to be trimmed and not below the line of the lower lip.

        Beards and whiskers are only to be worn with the CO’s authority, which will usually be granted only on medical or religious grounds, or where tradition permits.

        The appearance of the beard and whiskers is to be neat and tidy.

        How about sideburns?

        Sideburns are not to descend below the mid-point of the ear and are to be trimmed horizontally.

        Beards military regulations CREDIT BFBS

        Royal Navy

        The Commanding Officer may permit all Naval Service (except Royal Marines) male personnel to request to wear full set beards.

        Royal Marines male personnel may wear moustaches at their discretion.

        Beards and moustaches shall be kept neatly trimmed especially, in the case of beards, at the lower neck and cheekbones.

        It is within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above)) to define an acceptable appearance of a beard or moustache, as much depends on the features of the individual.

        However, as a guide the following characteristics are not acceptable:

        ‘Designer stubble’

        Designer stubble is assessed as any beard length shorter than Grade 1 (2.5mm).

        Beards of uneven growth or determined to be ‘scrappy’

        The definition of ‘scrappy’ remains within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above)).

        Long ‘hipster’ beards or ‘handlebar’ moustaches

        Extended or ‘hipster’=’ beards or ‘handlebar’/extended moustaches are not appropriate. The maximum acceptable length of a beard is to be Grade 8 (25.5mm).

        Slow growing beards

        The definition of an ‘excessive amount of time to grow’ remains within the subjective judgement of the Command (and delegated representatives, namely the Executive Dept and all personnel in positions of authority (LH/LCpl and above). The advised maximum time for an individual to grow a sufficiently thorough beard is two weeks.

        Religious or faith reasons

        Where facial hair is grown as a tenet of faith by a genuine adherence to that faith, it may be grown in excess of the limit described above at para (3). Such facial hair may require to be trimmed, however, or be tied up or removed if it undermines the health and safety of the wearer or others in the unit, or if it undermines the operational effectiveness of the unit. Any faith or practice must be clearly established by an individual and not simply deemed as having been undertaken in order to defy the regulations.

        Keep safe

        It is important to note that when the safety of an individual might be jeopardised by their beard or moustache, such as in the wearing of oxygen or gas masks, it shall be modified in such a fashion as to accommodate the type of equipment to be worn. The Commanding Officer retains the authority to determine the requirement for an individual to shave, based on the Operational requirement at that time.

        Facial hair bugler

        Royal Air Force

        In 2019, the RAF updated its guidelines around facial hair, allowing personnel to grow beards for the first time in the service’s history.

        All RAF personnel are permitted to grow a full set beard – a beard and moustache. In order to do so, a request must be made to the Commanding Officer in writing prior to any growth of facial hair.

        Only full beards that are kept short and neatly trimmed will be permitted and the Station Warrant Officer, on behalf of the Station Commander, will act as the final arbiter of what is, or is not, acceptable.

        The following characteristics of beards are generally not permitted:

        Slow growing beards

        The definition of an ‘excessive amount of time to grow’ remains within the subjective judgement of the Chain of Command (CoC). The advised maximum time to grow a sufficiently thorough beard is two weeks. RAF personnel are permitted to grow their beards while on duty.


        Any beard length shorter than Grade 1 (2.5mm) is not permitted. This does not include the grace period detailed above.

        Beards of uneven growth/coverage

        The definition of ‘uneven growth/coverage’ remains within the subjective judgement of the CoC.

        Longer-length hair growth/’hipster’ beards

        Longer-length facial hair growth is not acceptable. The maximum acceptable length of a beard is Grade 8 (25.5mm).

        Unnatural colouring of beards

        If facial hair is dyed or highlighted, the colour is to be natural and in a uniform shade appropriate to the features of the individual.

        Faith or religion

        In addition, the wearing of a beard as a tenet of a faith which do not comply with the criteria above remains permitted. Directions as to how they may be worn can be sought from the HQ Air Diversity and Inclusion Team.

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