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Bearded men are probably more hygienic, new research finds

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DAVID NIELD
21 JAN 2016
 

The trendiness of beards seems to ebb and flow depending on where in the world you are and what decade you happen to be living in, but what about the health implications of these dense patches of 'face fur'? The BBC has been investigating whether beards are actually good or bad for our health, whether you're growing one yourself or coming into contact with someone who is.

In this case, the question was sparked by the discovery of a new form of antibiotic found living on the bacteria in someone's beard - not a finding that's going to encourage someone who's already put off by the sight of a beard (the technical term for a person afraid of beards is a pogonophobe, in case you were wondering).

 

But what does the science say? Michael Mosley from the BBC points to a study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection that looked at samples taken from 408 hospital staff: the data showed that it was the clean-shaven staff members who were more likely to have "certain bacterial species" living on their faces.

In particular, those without beards were more than three times as likely to be harbouring methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) on their skin, a particularly notorious source of infections in hospital.

There are two hypotheses: one is that the process of shaving creates micro-abrasions in the skin which then provide a fertile breeding ground for bacteria. The second idea is that beards actively fight off bacterial infection. In an experiment carried out for the BBC, microbiologist Adam Roberts was able to grow more than 100 types of bacteria from material swabbed from beards - and he says it's possible that some of these microbes are helping in the process of killing off others.

For example, some of the 'silent assassins' grown by Roberts were part of the Staphylococcus epidermidis species, which were found to be effective at killing off Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. It seems that the unique microclimate of a beard could be an invaluable breeding ground for some medical treatments.

Beards are likely to be contentious for some time to come. They were compulsory for men in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, for example, while Alexander the Great was said to have banned his soldiers from growing beards in case enemy fighters held on to them in battle.

According to Philip Tierno, a clinical professor who spoke to Mic, the question of a beard's healthiness is a complex one: in his opinion, there's no proof that beards are either healthy or unhealthy.

"People touch their faces often - they touch their nose, they rub their eyes, they're bringing on a variety of things," Tierno said. "Kissing people, even on the cheek, brings organisms. Over time, you have opportunities to deposit numerous types of organisms - some of which stay, some of which die."

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