Science Shows That Having a Beard Could Help You Fight Sickness


Getting to look like a sexy lumberjack isn't the only benefit of having a beard. It turns out that a little scruff could also be good for your health.

In an investigation led by the BBC, beards were found to contain microbes that kill bacteria — in other words, a potential new kind of antibiotic. 

Society has long debated whether it's healthy to have a beard. Detractors point to that rather disturbing 2015 discovery that "facial hair could be dirtier than a toilet bowl," as the New York Post put it. After swabbing a series of beards and analyzing their bacteria content, microbiologist John Golobic concluded that some of the bacteria were "the kind of things that you find in feces."

Let's face it — beards aren't always the most hygienic thing on your body.

On the flip side, other research suggests that beards have marked benefits. A 2012 study found that facial hair provided some protection from the sun's harmful UV rays. Beards also reduce the rashes and acne that come from shaving, hold in your face's natural moisturizers and trap allergens from entering your airways, according to Details.

The BBC also pointed to a 2014 study in the Journal of Hospital Infection, wherein researchers swabbed the faces of 408 health-care workers — some bearded, some not. Those without beards were more likely to be carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, an infection-causing staph bacteria that's become resistant to many antibiotics.

The researchers suggested a possible explanation for their findings: that shaving might create small abrasions on the skin, "which may support bacterial colonization and proliferation," according to the BBC.

But the BBC ventured forth with another theory: that something lurking within the hairy depths of your beard might actively fight infection. To test their theory, they swabbed a random assortment of beards and sent the samples off to Dr. Adam Roberts, a microbiologist at University College London.

In a few of the petri dishes, Roberts observed that certain microbes from the beards were behaving like antibiotics and killing bacteria. 

"Adam [Roberts] identified the silent assassins as part of a species called Staphylococcus epidermidis," the BBC wrote. "When he tested them against a particularly drug-resistant form of Eschercichia coli, the sort that cause urinary tract infections, they killed with abandon."

But don't swear off shaving your face for the next year just yet. The organisms inside people's beards change all the time, experts say, and it's therefore too simplistic to categorically declare beards "healthy" or "unhealthy."

"It's a little more complex than any article makes it," Philip Tierno, a clinical professor in the departments of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center, told Mic.

What's growing in your beard at any given time depends on a number of factors — from what you eat to what's on your hands. In the BBC study, for instance, those E. coli-fighting microbes could have come from whatever the trial participants happened to have had for lunch.

"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." 

Beards may not be the key to maintaining good health, but there's no downside to having them either, Tierno assured Mic. If you maintain good hygiene practices, like washing your face frequently, "you'll have no problem," he said. "There's no downside to a beard, per se."

And besides, the BBC admits their findings — however exciting — probably won't lead to the creation of new antibiotics anytime soon. Though developing new antibiotics is important — for proof, look no further than antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea — getting new products on the market is expensive and prone to failure, the BBC reported. 

For now, at least you can rest assured that your beard could be saving you from a painful UTI.

Jan. 20, 2015, 4:53 p.m.: This story has been updated to include quotes from Philip Tierno.

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