Are beards good for your health?

Close up of man touching mustache
Close up of man touching mustache

The goatee. The chin strap. Perhaps just a solid wash brush moustache. Beards have made a comeback in recent years, perhaps largely thanks to the "hipster" movement.

Their rise in popularity has sparked much debate around the hygiene of facial hair. Critics see beards not only as jawline eyesores but suggest they are a home for unpleasant bugs too.

So, what's the evidence that beards pose any sort of health risk?

For the pogonophobes among us - people who fear beards - you'll find validation in the results of a recent study in New Mexico where traces of a bacteria, usually found in faeces, appeared in randomly sampled beards.

As sold by one newspaper: "Some beards contain more poo than a toilet."

But, another study in an American hospital reached a very different conclusion.

Published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, 408 hospital staff with and without beards had their faces swabbed.

They honed in on hospital staff based on the high rate of hospital-acquired infections. While hands, ties, white coats and equipment have all been blamed, could beards also be part of the problem?

The researchers were surprised to learn that it was clean-shaven staff, not the beard owners, who were more likely to be carrying something on their faces.

In fact, the beardless group were three times more likely to carry a species on their faces known to be a source of hospital-acquired infections than the bearded group.

Methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) is resistant to many current antibiotics and researchers deduced that shaving may cause micro-abrasions in the skin "which may support bacterial colonisation and proliferation".

Picking up on the findings, BBC show Trust Me I'm A Doctor has offered a different explanation:

That beards can fight infection.

The show's team arranged to swab the beards of a random group of men and sent the samples off to microbiologist Dr Adam Roberts, based at University College London, to see if anything could be grown from them.

The result was over 100 different bacteria sprouting from the beard swabs and, among them, something that appeared to be killing the bacteria.

Adams suggested the most likely suspect would be a germ or microbe which, at a bacterial level, fights with fungus for food and space. By doing so, they have evolved over millennia to produce antibiotics, a weapon to microbe-kind (penicillin was originally extracted from Penicillium notatum, a species of fungus).

The show's hosts ask whether microbes from the beard samples could be doing something similar such as killing fellow bacteria by producing some sort of toxin?

Adams says it's a cautious possibility, identifying that which was killing off other bacteria as a part of a species called Staphylococcus epidermidis.

Testing them against a particularly drug-resistant form of E. coli, the sort that cause urinary tract infections, they successfully wiped it out.

While it's unlikely "Beardicillin" will appear any time soon, Adam's team is working to develop new antibiotics, something which hasn't happened for 30 years.

- nzherald.co.nz

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