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What’s in Your Beard?

a man with a beard smiling and wearing a plaid shirt

Beards are in, but’s what’s in a beard?

These days, more men are sporting trendy beards. But could beards be harboring more than just hair?

The idea that beards are a source of bacteria, fungi and E. Coli (yes, even E. Coli) has surfaced in the news from time to time since the 1960s. Back then, a researcher named Manuel Barbieto conducted a study in which he sprayed the beards of volunteer subjects with a bacterial brew. He determined that the beards continued to harbor infectious bacteria even after thorough washing.

Though Barbieto failed to consider that the average guy on the street was unlikely to encounter the circumstances he created, the die was set: beards were ever after suspect.

However, a recent hospital study suggests that beards may be less likely to harbor bacteria than the faces of clean-shaven men.

According to Penn Medicine’s Carrie L. Kovarik, MD, a dermatologist who specializes in infectious dieseases of the skin, the premise for the study was simple: if facial hair harbored more abundant pathogens than facial skin alone, bearded men might present a greater risk for the spread of hospital-acquired infections.

The Investigation

To test their theory, the investigators tested 409 hospital staff almost evenly divided among men with facial hair (the majority of whom were bearded) and clean-shaven men. All of the men came in contact with patients on a daily basis, and all were asked to contribute samples from their cheeks and upper lips below the nose.

The findings were, well, hair-raising.

“Not only were the bearded men less likely to harbor bacteria than their clean-shaven counterparts,” Dr. Kovarik says, “but the clean-shaven men actually had higher rates of certain bacterial species. This was attributed to micro-trauma to the skin that occurs during shaving, which could support bacterial growth.”

Thus, another pointless prejudice punctured.

“Depending upon their length and density, beards are natural sponges,” says Dr. Kovarik. “For example, the well-bearded bar patron might have more hops in his beard than his beer by the end of the evening.”

In addition, she adds, some beards, have the texture of brillo, and might be prone to gathering dust and other debris.

So, most of what’s suspected about beards has to do with common sense, which is not always the best foundation for clinical investigation.

“In general, we have no need to fear the beard,” Dr. Kovarik says.

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