If you’re one of many men who grew a pandemic beard because it seemed like less effort than shaving, it’s time to rethink that. Unless the look you’re going for is unkempt mountain man — which, OK, anything goes these days — beard care takes time and effort.
“I think it’s important for people to realise that a beard has to be maintained, otherwise it looks ridiculous,” said Michael Gieseke, 40, of Pittsburgh, who couldn’t even trim his during quarantine as part of an agreement with his three sons not to cut their hair. “I don’t know that I would have had the willpower to do this if I had to go out in public.” Many newly reopened barber shops can no longer offer beard trims (or hot towel shaves) because of the requirement that customers wear masks.
So what’s a beard newbie to do? You could just shave it all off. But if you want to keep yours — and make it presentable — here’s how.
First, let’s answer the mask question.
Beards can prevent the N95 mask from sealing correctly, but “having a beard is unlikely to make a big difference” in the protection offered by cloth masks and other face coverings, Dr John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist and a clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, wrote in an email. (Cloth masks, he said, are also worn more to protect other people than you.) Nor is Swartzberg aware of any greater risk of coronavirus transmission with a beard.
“I’m really reaching to find a theoretical risk,” he wrote.
As for what mask to choose, Alex Brenard, who has both a beard and a job that requires him to wear a mask all day, has found that one with ear loops is more comfortable than one that ties in the back. “I think because it rests on the beard instead of squishing it down aggressively,” said Brenard, the manager of the Philadelphia outpost of the Blind Barber chain.
Should it stay or go?
If you’re still on the fence about keeping the beard, consider: Dermatologists actually encourage growing them for men with curly hair (including Black men and those of Middle Eastern descent), because they tend to solve the problem of pseudofolliculitis barbae, aka the ingrown hairs that often come from shaving.
“Go on men growing pandemic beards!” said Dr. Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “I bet all those ingrown hairs are gone.” (If they are not, she recommends Bump Clear from Frederick Benjamin.)
Take care of your skin.
The first step in beard care is actually skin care, something dermatologists and barbers say too many men skip. “Under the beard is like the forgotten land,” Gohara said. Lax skin care can make a beard look unkempt — and it also means you can end up needing to repair half your face if you decide to shave.
Exfoliating — something that shaving would normally take care of — is key, because it both helps the hair grow and rids the skin of the dander, dirt and oil that beards can collect. Scott McMahan, a hairstylist and groomer whose clients include Josh Brolin, likes to exfoliate by washing his beard two to three times per week with dandruff shampoo, which has salicylic acid, a common face peel ingredient. (McMahan has worn a beard for more than 30 years.)
After you apply a grooming product, use a comb or brush to style the beard. “You can kind of train the hair to move the way you want it to move, and it will look well kept,” said Jeremy Heiser, a training and education executive for the skin care brand Kiehl’s who has worn a beard for years. “You don’t have to have this crazy Santa Claus beard.”
You’ll need tools of the trade.
To trim your beard, invest in some hair clippers — preferably ones with an adjustable lever and clip guards — and a pair of hair-cutting scissors, which have a pointed tip for precise cuts. (These don’t need to be expensive; you can find great ones online for $20 or less apiece, said Craig Whitely, a barber in Los Angeles.) Clippers are best for cutting a lot of hair uniformly; the scissors are for fine-tuning (such as flyaways and coarse gray hairs).
A dull blade can pull or catch on hair; in a pinch, you can sharpen yours by cutting through heavy-duty aluminum foil, said McMahan, who learned to be resourceful while on multicontinent publicity tours with the Backstreet Boys in their heyday.
When cutting, err on the side of longer — you can cut more, but you can’t put hair back on. Curly hair may require some playing around with guards, because it isn’t uniform length and probably curls differently on one side than the other.
The big tell of a rookie beard groom, experts agreed, is the neckline. If it’s too high, “there’s no other way to describe it — your face and jaw look too full, your head looks big, and your neck looks too long,” Whitely said. Too low and you can look “like a werewolf,” Brenard said. Ideally, the beard should end about one finger above your Adam’s apple, he said.
For a more defined jawline, Michael Dueñas, a Los Angeles hairstylist who has worked with celebrities such as Kevin Jonas and Michael Caine, suggested cutting the hair on your neck slightly shorter than that on your chin. Work upward from your neck to your chin — if you work from one side of the jaw to the other, you’ll be more likely to cut one side longer because naturally your hand will drop down, he said.
Finally, use a hand mirror to check out your beard in profile, which is how some people will see it (at least off Zoom). Your beard should only be falling down from your cheeks and jawline. Trim any hair long enough to grab where your neck meets your chin, otherwise that bulge of hair “makes you look like you have a double chin,” Brenard said.
If all of this sounds tricky, take heart. If you make a mistake, you can always shave it off.