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 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.
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 are "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.
What Do The Queen's Regulation's Say About Facial Hair And Appearance?
Personal appearance is covered in section 5.366 of the Queen's Regulations.
The British Army recently updated its policy, allowing servicewomen to wear their hair in a plait or ponytail "when the working environment permits".
As of 2 August 2021, both servicemen and women were allowed to wear their hair in twists, cornrows and locks – as long as the men's hair "does not cover the face or reach onto the collar or ears".
The regulations state:
(1) Males. The hair of the head is to be kept well cut and trimmed, except where authority has been granted otherwise on religious grounds; style and colour (if not natural) is not to be of an exaggerated nature.
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 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. Sideburns are not to descend below the mid-point of the ear and are to be trimmed horizontally.
The personal appearance of female personnel is also covered with regulations covering hair and make-up.
(2) Females. The hair is to be neat and worn above the collar. Combs, grips etc., if worn, are to be plain and similar in colour to the hair. Style and colour (if not natural) is not to be of an exaggerated nature. b. Make-up.
The regulations state that 'Make-up is not to be worn' by males.
2) Females. Make-up (if worn) is to be inconspicuous. Brightly coloured nail varnish is not to be worn.
On formal parades, watches and jewellery (except wedding rings) are not to be worn. At other times only wedding, and/or engagement rings, and one signet ring may be worn on the hands with uniform.
Women may wear a single small plain stud earring in the centre of the lobe of each ear.
Rings, studs etc. are not to be worn through any other part of the body while in uniform, while undertaking PT or at any time during operational tours.
Watches may be worn in uniform (on either wrist) provided they and their straps are of a sober style and colour. Additional religious or cultural accoutrements may be worn where this is customary and authority has been granted.
Policy and Appearance
The regulations for men following similar lines for the Royal Navy.
Hair shall be neatly groomed; taper trimmed at the back, sides and above the ears to blend with the hairstyle.
On the top of the head it shall be no more than 15 cm in length and sufficiently short at the front and sides that when the hair is groomed and headdress removed, no hair shall touch the ears or fall below the top of the eyebrows. It shall be kept above the shirt collar.
Cultural and religious exceptions are described at Para 3827 and Para 3828.
Hair shall be no greater than 4 cm in bulk at the top of the head, with the bulk decreasing gradually from the top and blending with the taper-trimmed back and sides.
Bulk is defined as the distance that the mass of hair protrudes from the scalp when groomed, as distinct from the length of the hair.
Styling shall not present an exaggerated or non-conformist appearance, nor shall it interfere with the proper wearing of headdress.
Excessively short hair can detract from a smart and well-groomed appearance, however, may be permitted at the discretion of the Commanding Officer.
Unnatural hair colours (i.e. those colours that are not within the colour range of the individual's natural hair colour) are not permitted.
Sideburns shall not extend below the ear lobe, shall be of even width, and shall be taper trimmed and squared off to conform to the overall hair style. Sideburns for RM Personnel shall not extend below halfway down the ear. d. Beards and Moustaches. The Commanding Officer may permit all Naval Service (except RM) male personnel to request to wear full set beards. RM 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, as much depends on the features of the individual.
However, as a guide the following characteristics are not acceptable:
(1) 'Designer Stubble'.
Designer stubble is assessed as any beard length shorter than Grade 1 (2.5mm)
(2) Beards of Uneven Growth (eg. '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)).
(3) Extended or '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).
(4) Beards Taking Excessive Time to Grow. 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 2 weeks.
(5) Religious or Faith Reasons.
Where facial hair is grown as a tenet of a faith by a genuine adherence to that faith, it may be grown in excess of the limit described above at sub 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.
The regulations also state: "When the safety of an individual might be jeopardised by his 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.
Such occasions would normally include initial respirator testing (ARTS) and Operational Theatres in which the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence (CBRN) threat is deemed sufficiently high to warrant such an action.
Other occasions, such as Operational Sea Training and/or similar exercises, and Operational theatres in which the CBRN threat is deemed NOT sufficiently high enough to warrant such an action shall be treated accordingly, thus allowing an individual to retain their beard/moustache, if desired.
If the individual refuses to modify their facial hair (or headdress) to the extent necessary to maintain their own safety and operational capability, then they may be disciplined.
Should they still refuse, commanders should consider not deploying that individual into theatre or removing them from theatre, if already deployed.
There are specific regulations around beards or moustaches, stating that "beards or moustaches shall be shaved off" if any of the above conditions, among others, are not met. The rule book also states that:
"Beards should be of a length that does not extend beyond the top part of the collar front of a service shirt. More specifically, if the Naval serviceman was wearing a shirt and tie, the beard would not obscure the knot of the tie. The breadth of the beard should not exceed the maximum width of the line between the Naval serviceman’s ears."
Again, the dress and appearance of women in the Royal Navy are governed by the regulations.
Female personnel are covered by rule 3819, with guidelines on hair, hairstyles, make-up and other considerations.
Hair shall be kept neatly groomed and shall not extend below the lower edge of the shirt collar. Long hair should be worn up and properly secured in a neat and tidy fashion using grips, hairpins and nets where appropriate.
Varying styles of hair, straight or curled, are permitted within these limits but unnatural hair colours (i.e. those colours that are not within the colour range of the individual’s natural hair colour) and exaggerated styles, including those with excessive fullness, shortness or extreme height are not permitted.
In no case shall the bulk or length of the hair detract from a smart and well-groomed appearance or preclude the proper wearing of naval headdress. Hair ornaments, (including scrunchies, combs and Alice bands) shall not be worn.
Every effort shall be made to ensure that grips, hairpins and nets used to secure the hair are as unobtrusive as possible and are to be as near as possible to the colour of the hair.
Hairstyles shall be secured or styled back from the face; this includes corn braids/ corn rows, which should be simple in design and absent beads and any other adornments.
Ratings with long hair may wear it in a ‘pony tail’, secured with a non-synthetic (i.e. not man-made fibre) tie when forming part of an emergency party so that breathing apparatus can be donned quickly without the need to remove hairgrips.
This relaxation also extends to ratings off duty in their mess decks. Cultural and religious exceptions are described at Para 3827 and Para 3828.
Female personnel with hair loss may wear a wig that conforms to the hair rules described above and where not possible, for example during strenuous physical exercise or firefighting, may, at their discretion, wear a plain headscarf in a colour appropriate to the uniform being worn.
When conducting fire-fighting duties, the headscarf should be of non-synthetic material, not man-made fibre.
In May 2021, the Second Sea Lord confirmed "servicewomen can now wear their hair in a ponytail or plait whilst in working rig".
When wearing uniform, or plain clothes on duty, make-up must be discrete. This shall preclude the use of false eyelashes, heavy eyeliner, brightly coloured eye shadow and excessive facial make-up.
Fingernails are to be kept neatly trimmed and are not to be of an excessive length. No coloured nail polish (ie. clear only, no nail art) is to be worn. False nails are prohibited.
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.
Canerows, cornrows, twists and braids are now permitted, but must be tied back if it passes the bottom edge of the service jacket collar.
If the hair is dyed or highlighted, the colour chosen is to be natural and in a uniform shade appropriate to the individual.
The commanding officer shall be the arbiter upon what is or not an acceptable style or length of cut.
On occasion (such as PT or when undertaking other service training), the hair can fall below the collar so long as it is still tied and does not create any health and safety issues.
For any tasks or training which require individuals to wear respirators, helmets or other safety equipment, long hair may be worn in a ponytail if this facilitates safe fitting of such items
a. Rastafarians. Male Rastafarian hair is to follow the same general rules for other service personnel in that it is to be neat and tidy and not of an exaggerated nature. Dreadlocks are to be no longer than the collar and able to be worn with all types of military headdress in such a way that is compatible with the image of the Royal Air Force.
Sikh personnel may wear their hair long in the Sikh tradition, with the hair of the head to be so arranged that it is placed under the turban.
Personnel are allowed to grow a full set beard, although they must make a written request to their commanding officer beforehand.
Members of the RAF are still allowed to grow beards for religious reasons outside of the guidelines.
For occupational or operational reasons, where a hazard clearly exists, personnel authorised to wear beards on religious or medical grounds may be ordered to modify or remove facial hair to such an extent as to enable the correct wearing of respirator or breathing apparatus.
However, during routine nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) training or station exercises the beard may remain unshaven.
Facial hair is not allowed if:
- It is a beard that takes "excessive time to grow" – the advised maximum timeframe is two weeks
- It is stubble shorter than 2.5mm
- The beard is uneven
- The beard is longer than 25.5mm
If a moustache is worn, the upper lip is to be unshaven and the moustache is not to extend below the edge of the mouth.
Hairdressing and Cosmetics –
0154. Female personnel are to arrange their hair in a manner that permits the service dress cap to be worn correctly; hair is not to show under the front or peak of the cap and the style is to be kept neat and no longer than the bottom edge of the collar at the back of the service jacket. Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service (PMRAFNS) personnel are to wear their hair off the collar when engaged in nursing duties.
Extreme styles of haircuts and colouring are not permitted. If the hair is dyed or highlighted, the colour chosen is to be natural and in a uniform shade appropriate to the individual. The commanding officer shall be the arbiter upon what is or not an acceptable style or length of cut.
Narrow fabric covered hair bands (scrunches) may be worn with working dress but must be inconspicuous and either of a similar colour to the hair or black. Hairbands are not to be worn on parade.
Combs, when worn, must be plain and of a similar colour to the wearer's hair. Exceptionally, when on tasks or training which require them to wear respirators or other similar safety equipment, females with long hair may wear their hair in a ponytail if this facilitates the safe fitting of such items.
When the need to wear this equipment has passed, the hair must be put up.
Female Rastafarian hair is to follow the same rules for other female personnel.
0155. In addition to the provisions of Para 0152, female aircrew who are required to wear flying helmets or aircrew respirators for the performance of their aircrew duties are to wear their hair in a manner which:
a. Is sufficiently short that the fit and stability of their flying helmet or aircrew respirator is not compromised.
b. Allows the hair to fit completely and comfortably inside their flying helmet or aircrew respirator without the use of hairpins, clips or other hair-restraining devices that might constitute an operational or flight safety hazard.
0156. Nail Varnish & Cosmetics. When in uniform female personnel are forbidden to use brightly coloured nail varnish and cosmetics of a conspicuous nature. Mixed nail colours and non-traditional colours such as blue, green, silver, black etc, are not permitted. The commanding officer shall be the arbiter upon what is or not an acceptable colour.
Nursing staff are forbidden to use nail varnish of any kind when on ward duty.
Female aircrew are forbidden to wear cosmetics of any kind when performing flying duties that require the use of oxygen masks or aircrew respirators.