Sailors who grow beards to avoid routine shaving issues will not be kicked out of the service if they can't find a treatment that works for them, according to a new Navy policy released Wednesday.
Service members who get frequent ingrown hairs and skin irritations known as pseudofolliculitis barbae, shortened to PFB by the Navy, will not be required to shave, and officers have updated guidance for treating, maintaining and addressing their beards.
It's the most notable change to Navy grooming policy since 2019, when the service did away with long-standing no-shave chits, or waivers, that allowed Navy personnel to grow quarter-inch facial hair. The previous rule was condemned for having a racial bias against sailors of color.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Raheem Richardson, a sailor who enlisted in December 2017 and is currently stationed at Navy Personnel Command in Tennessee, told reporters during a media roundtable Tuesday that the policy change is a major relief.
"Being forced to shave over the bumps that occur from PFB is one of the harshest things I think I ever had to experience," Richardson said. "So now that this policy is changed, I feel like it's really going to help sailors as far as not only being comfortable in their own skin, but being able to feel confident in their job."
PFB is often found in curly haired men and occurs in about 60% of African American men, according to studies by the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.
Navy officials have said beards can be an operational risk for sailors who have to put on a breathing apparatus, and stubble can cause an improper seal on firefighting or gas masks, which is an essential ability for service members aboard ships.
Under the previous policy issued in 2019, sailors diagnosed with PFB had to work with on-base doctors to come up with a treatment plan, and those with severe cases even had to undergo laser treatment to eliminate razor bumps.
Rob Carroll, director of the Navy Uniform Matters Office, said that's all in the past now.
"Three years ago was the last update we did to the PFB policy," Carroll said. "At that time, we utilized the information in the guidance that was provided. Now that we're in 2022, we're taking another look."
Sailors with PFB are now allowed to edge and outline their beards if they choose to instead of being forced to grow them out under prior policy.
Additionally, sailors no longer must carry a paper copy of their shaving waiver on their person, and laser treatment is now optional instead of mandatory, Carroll said.
Sailors with PFB who don't want to undergo laser treatment or trim their beards in any fashion will not be administratively separated from the Navy, according to the new guidance.
"PFB treatment failures will not be considered for administrative separation from the Navy, but may result in a required designator or rating specialty change," the new policy states. "Sailors found to be willfully non-compliant or that refuse to comply with prescribed PFB medical treatments or commanding officer's shaving requirements may be subject to administrative separation."
Carroll said a separation would occur only if a sailor is prescribed a treatment plan by a doctor and willfully ignores it. Sailors who don't agree to a plan or find one that doesn't work with their skin will be considered for a reassignment that would not require emergency breathing equipment.
"Instead of the Navy saying you can't utilize your skill set or talents, that individual may be recommended to pursue another specialty that doesn't require them to wear a certain type of equipment," Carroll said.
The Navy has not yet given guidance on the topic of religious accommodations for beards.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.