What’s in a Beard?

This article was originally published on the RiAus Blog on 18th August, 2015

Charles Darwin hypothesised beards were evolved out of sexual selection (Image: Wikimedia)

Charles Darwin suggested beards evolved out of sexual selection (Image: Wikimedia)


A beard is more than a golden ticket into the Secret Men’s Society: granting guys the right to the Knowing Nod when passing their bearded comrades.

The manliness projected by a beard, however, is not merely subjective.

Charles Darwin suggested, in his book The Descent of Man, that beards, including his own, might have evolved out of sexual selection.

Perhaps he fancied himself with facial hair.

Primates display “badges” to boost sex appeal and project social status, rank and individual identity

The status projected by the beard may not just be objective (Image: quicklime.com)

The status projected by the beard may not just be objective (Image: quicklime.com)

According to recent research, the “badges” displayed by primates are actually secondary sexual characteristics, their role rather indirect.

This was actually demonstrated in an earlier experiment reported in 2012, whereby women judged the fuzzy faces of men as “older” and of “higher social status” when compared to their uncloaked faces. The women did not, however, deem the bearded versions of these men more attractive.

I think we can all agree that attempting to have a conversation with a man who has conspicuous remnants of his lunch inhabiting his facial hair, can be rather distracting, if not unattractive.

What is really in a beard? (Image: theawesomedaily.com)

What is really in a beard? (Image: theawesomedaily.com)

But really, what’s in a beard, apart from projected social status, the foam of craft beer or the rogue crumb of a gourmet burger?

According to a rather unscientific study recently conducted in Albuquerque, USA, a veritable menagerie of bacteria and other germs quite happily inhabit the faces of the hirsute, yet hip, men about town.

This should come as no surprise to you, if you are a microbiologist.

Bacteria are residing on almost every single surface in our natural and built environment.

Beards are no exception.

But is the beard microbiome a concern?

The human face naturally harbors bacteria and a beard may increase the movement but not the risk posed by them

In a hospital operating theatre, an unkempt, uncovered beard may be of concern to an immuno-compromised surgical patient, particularly if the bearded attendee is prone to compulsive facial fondling.

It would appear that “wiggling” of surgical facemasks can encourage facial bacteria to be dislodged, and a study in 2002 found significantly more bacteria fell from the masks of bearded males when compared to their clean-shaven compadres. Interestingly however, bacteria-fall from masked females was comparable to that of the bearded men!

The bacteria found lurking within the unruly facial stubble of some men could potentially cause illness but in all reality, are fairly typical in nature, and commonly occur on human skin.

Yes, some bacteria found in beard tests can also be found in the gut, but can equally occur on the skin surface, while others are actually essential for human health.

Some of the guilty suspects include: Klebsiella bacteria that are found almost everywhere in nature, including the human face; Pseudomonas species, equally common in all environments; Enterobacter organisms which may be found in the gut as well as in a goatee but some species are also essential for human health; Acinetobacter, common bacteria residing on human skin. So it comes as no surprise that these “germs” may be manifesting in human stubble.

Micro-trauma induced by shaving may actually be associated with increased bacterial colonisation

It is quite interesting to note that bristle-bacteria are generally no different to those found on a clean-shaven face, cheeks or lip region.

In fact, a study involving male healthcare workers revealed clean-shaven male subjects were, in some cases, more likely to harbour colonies of potentially disease-causing pathogens on their silken faces when compared to their bearded colleagues. The researchers suggested micro-trauma induced by shaving could possibly be providing desirable bacterial colonization and proliferation sites.

While a beard may provide a suitable habitat for bacteria, the species of germs residing in the growth are of no great concern.

It would be prudent to keep in mind, however, any bacteria on your hands are likely to be passed on to your beard each time you stroke it during thoughtful contemplation. So let’s face it, if you have faecal matter on your fingers when fondling your facial hair, your beard may be full of…less desirable bacteria.

Keep your beard microbiome healthy: fondle less; clean more.

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