The Surprising Ways Having A Beard Can Impact Your Health

Beards. They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s little doubt that they’ve become a major male fashion accessory in the 21st century. Everyone from Prince Harry to Jake Gyllenhaal has been seen rocking one. But the question should be asked: do the men behind those famous beards know the surprising health consequences of possessing facial hair?

To most, of course, beards are a question of fashion or convenience rather than health. They were once a staple of 1970s rock bands, but soon the beard fell very much out of vogue. The 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s were a time of extensive workouts for shaving devices. But then something happened, and suddenly hair of the facial variety was back in style.

Soon it seemed everyone had a beard, and some specimens were more famous than others. After finishing his 22-year stint on the Late Show, David Letterman couldn’t wait to reveal a more grizzled look. “I always told myself when the show goes away, I’ll stop shaving. I had to shave every day, and I got so sick and tired of it,’ the veteran host informed Today.

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Even politicians began to feel comfortable sporting beards. Once only associated with historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Vladimir Lenin, suddenly public figures felt comfortable to let it all grow once more. Canadian and Indian Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Narendra Modi are just two famous examples of the trend crossing over into politics.

It wasn’t always so, though. While bearded sports stars were once as rare as hen’s teeth, sporting a beard as a politician was considered akin to career suicide. “In the U.S., beards have been perceived as a political turn-off for voters for decades and the refuge of the defeated candidate,” wrote Jessica Murphy for the BBC in January 2020.

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It isn’t always a personal decision to grow a beard, however. Indeed, beards have often been the focus of political, religious and even military decrees. Alexander the Great, for example, was said to have banned his soldiers from growing them as he believed beards to be detrimental in battle.

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In contrast, Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership made beards obligatory. In Egypt, however, where political life is much more secular, beards have long been associated with those who have extreme views. Moreover, Enver Hoxha, the communist head of Albania, outlawed beards, and a similar edict was only recently ended in Turkmenistan.

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If some of those historical examples of beard-related laws seem rather extreme, then it’s worth considering the actions of Russian leader Peter the Great at the start of the 1700s. The ruler viewed beards with such a fierce dislike that he levied a tax of members of the population who didn’t shave – with the exception of members of the peasantry and the clergy. A beard tariff is rather a comical thought for most modern audiences.

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Then there are women’s differing attitudes to male facial hair. For many men, of course, the opinion of the female population is important when considering whether to grow a beard or not. And the evidence suggests that, although there will always be individual tastes when it comes to such matters, there are also clear patterns of preference.

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Indeed, there has been research conducted into how women feel about men’s beards. Jeremy Nicholson, in an article for Psychology Today, described a 2008 research study by Neave and Shields. The focus of the investigation surrounded the perceptions of women regarding male “attractiveness” and “masculinity.” Specifically the researchers looked into how the presence of beards on men affected these perceptions. The results were fascinating.

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According to the Neave and Shields study, light facial stubble was considered to be the most attractive male look. Men with gentle stubble were identified as the favored partner, both in the short and long term. At the same time, full beards were seen to be related to masculinity, aggression and social maturity, in terms of women’s perceptions at least. Light beards were linked to dominance, and the presence of a beard also affected impressions of age.

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Nicholson’s article in Psychology Today makes a strong conclusion. “Overall, these ratings suggest that an intermediate level of facial stubble is more attractive for a sex partner, while a fuller beard is perceived as indicative of someone with good fathering ability and more investment in offspring,” states Nicholson. At least there’s little room for ambiguity in such findings.

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For men themselves, beards are perhaps a little more straightforward. It may be a question of just not wanting or having time to shave – think Letterman – or it may be an effort to overtly express masculinity. Indeed, actor Jamie Dornan, the star of movies such as 50 Shades of Grey and A Private War, once admitted that he maintains a beard because without one he thinks he looks boyish. It’s no doubt a sentiment that other men share.

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The fact remains, though, that beards do provoke opinions. And in some cases, even prejudices. Indeed, for the majority of the 20th century, beards were very much out of favor for that very reason. “Facial hair for the past century has been thought to reflect a suspicious streak of individuality and defiance,” historian Christopher Oldstone-Moore, of Wright State University in Ohio, revealed to the BBC.

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Beard prejudice certainly permeates the workplace. During the mid-1970s the U.S. Supreme Court, no less, backed a police department’s decision to prohibit beards and place restraints on the size and shape of moustaches that were permitted. The legal profession is another field tha, historically, hasn’t been exempt from bias. “You can see, going centuries back, a strong disposition against facial hair,” Oldstone-Moore confirmed.

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There are many jobs in which beards were, and indeed are, considered inappropriate for one reason or another. Firemen, for example, have long been expected to maintain a cleanly shaven look so oxygen masks can fit properly. But according to Oldstone-Moore, whose work The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain is dedicated to the subject of facial hair, the argument, and the reasoning, is in fact rather more complex.

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“The mask argument is in part a tool to be used for a larger argument, which is it’s just not uniform, it’s not respectable, it’s not proper, for disciplined professional men to have facial hair,” said Oldstone-Moore. “That’s the bottom line.” So, is it a question of safety, or a question of perception? Well, in other types of jobs, it’s a question of perceived hygiene.

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In the same BBC article, Oldstone-Moore also commented upon the issue of workplace cleanliness. “There’s a long history in our civilization of anxiety about facial hair, and hair in general, as being unhygienic: hairs will fall into the chocolate and soil the food,” the lecturer said. And this adds yet another layer to the great beard debate.

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And believe it or not, just to further complicate matters, there’s even a medically recognized phobia of beards. Pogonophobia is defined by the Macmillan Dictionary as being “an extreme dislike of beards” and has even been known to provoke panic attacks in sufferers. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was one particularly high-profile individual reported to have suffered from this phobia. According to the BBC, Thatcher was once quoted as saying she “wouldn’t tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard”.

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Whether someone is irrationally afraid of them or not, then, clearly beards can be more than a little controversial. But to most, they’re simply a matter of personal taste. Of course, trends come and go, and for those not covered by specific beard laws, facial hair is likely to slide back into obscurity as quickly as it became a must-have fashion accessory of the 21st century.

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But in all this, there’s one issue that has been relatively overlooked, at least by the masses. Because while there are those who espouse the idea that someone else’s beard can be somehow harmful to their own wellbeing, what about the health implications of facial hair for the actual wearer? Well, as it turns out, there are in fact many.

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Did you know that having a beard can actually have a detrimental effect on your health? Indeed, it seems that having a beard should actually come with a health warning. There are, as it turns out, a number of ways that facial hair can be hazardous to the wearer, although, as is common in life, the situation isn’t always as clear cut as it seems.

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Dr. Albert Rizzo is a senior medical advisor with the American Lung Association. He was asked a number of questions related to beards for a blog article published on the American Lung Association website in 2016. In answering those queries, Dr. Rizzo both gave credence to some popular myths while debunking others.

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Dr. Rizzo tackled the claim that beards can make the wearer sick. It turns out that, according to this particular medical advisor at least, there’s an element of truth to the claim. “You can’t just trim the beard and facial hair, you need to wash the beard to remove particles and bacteria you’ve been trapping all day long. If not, you will have bacteria and particles trapped on your face all day,” Dr. Rizzo stated.

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So, as long as the wearer regularly washes his beard, the facial hair won’t in fact make him sick. But can beards make allergies worse? It’s possible, at least according to Dr. Rizzo. “If you go out in the day, allergens may be caught in facial hair, but if the facial hair is not cleaned those allergens will follow you around all day and may end up in the airway down the road,” insists the doctor.

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The caveat with allergens, though, is that the beard can in fact act as a filter, keeping harmful substances from entering the airways. So as far as Dr. Rizzo is concerned, “a bigger beard may protect you from pollutants or allergens filtering into the airway”. The message here is crystal clear: keep your beard clean.

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Not all beard myths are negative, however. And as part of the interview that formed the basis of the blog piece, Dr. Rizzo was also questioned regarding more positive rumors about beards. For example, it’s sometimes claimed that beards somehow keep the wearer warmer in colder climes. “A beard may keep more warmth on the skin, so the facial temperature may be helped by that, but overall won’t have a tremendous effect on body warmth,” said Dr. Rizzo. He concluded that a scarf would be much more useful.

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But can beards not help prevent throat disease? Well, it isn’t that simple according to Dr. Rizzo. “The beard may serve as a filter. But like a filter in a furnace, if you don’t change it regularly – or clean it in this case – it leads to trouble,” said the doctor. Not cleaning the beard can be quite detrimental, in fact. “Transmission of bacteria from the beard to the body is more likely the longer it remains in the beard,” Dr. Rizzo confirmed.

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So for those who insist that beards can damage your health, there’ some semblance of truth, at least in Dr. Rizzo’s mind. Likewise, those who proclaim the health benefits of having a beard can also find reasons to be cheerful with his advice. Beards certainly aren’t all bad, it seems, from a health perspective.

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Indeed, when it comes to sporting facial hair, additional discoveries of a positive nature have come to light. A University College London scientist in the United Kingdom recently made an interesting discovery with regards to a specific type of bacteria found in beards. Dr. Adam Roberts was actually able to successfully develop more than 100 types of bacteria just from human facial hair.

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And one specific variety of bacteria discovered by Dr. Roberts in beards was of particular interest. That’s because this strain – a member of the species named Staphylococcus epidermidis – was able to eliminate other microbes that are known to be harmful to humans. “When [Dr. Roberts] tested them against a particularly drug-resistant form of Eschercichia coli (E. coli), the sort that cause urinary tract infections, they killed with abandon,” wrote Michael Mosley in a 2016 article for the BBC.

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What Dr. Roberts’ discovery potentially means is somewhat shocking: types of microbes found in human beards are seemingly able to kill some types of harmful bacteria. When Dr. Roberts was asked if this is fact if his findings pointed to this being caused by a variety of toxin, he was cautious in his reply. “Possibly,” the microbiologist answered.

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Moreover, Dr. Roberts’ findings aren’t the only positive health benefit potentially linked to having a beard. A study conducted in a U.S. hospital and published in the Journal of Hospital infection made some other intriguing findings regarding beards.

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In the American study, samples were taken from more than 400 medical workers. Participants included those with facial hair and those without. The motivation for the study was to discover whether beards – much like hands, equipment and even pieces of clothing – can be to responsible for helping to spread infectious diseases inside hospitals. So, were beards unsanitary or not?

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The results were surprising to say the least. That’s because the group that was found more likely to be carrying harmful species of bacteria was in fact the one without beards. And this wasn’t even close. Those with freshly shaven faces were discovered to be three times more likely to be carrying bacteria by the name of staph aureas, a strain that’s able to withstand many common forms of antibiotics. As a result, it’s a major headache to hospitals.

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Clearly, this type of discovery flies in the face of conventional wisdom that beards are somehow unhygienic. The American research team who made the discovery regarding staph aureas concluded that the problem was caused by small cuts on the skin brought about by shaving. These abrasions “may support bacterial colonisation and proliferation,” the report stated. But a second possibility is that it’s the microbes found in the beard itself that have beneficial effects.

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The results produced by the American research team were clearly one in the eye for the anti-beard brigade. Although it’s undoubtedly true that beards that aren’t looked after can potentially have negative health consequences, on the flipside a clean beard may bring potential benefits to the wearer. It isn’t the beard itself that is the problem, it seems, but rather the lack of cleanliness of the individual who has the beard.

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Believe it or not, the question as to whether men should be free to choose to wear a beard or not is so controversial that it’s even spawned an organization. According to its Facebook page, the Beard Liberation Front “is a British and international pressure group which campaigns in support of beards and opposes discrimination against those who wear them”.

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In conclusion, then, are men really free to choose to sport a beard or not? Oldstone-Moore believes that’s never been the case. “It is commonplace in the American and European press during the last 40 years to say that we are living in a time when people are free to adopt any facial hair they wish,” ,” said Oldstone-Moore. “Sure, if you can withstand constant inquisitions and ridicule.” And it seems we shouldn’t forget the health implications, too.

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One last thing: the health benefits, or otherwise, of beards should not only be a consideration for men. There are instances of women, too, having beards. An example is Vivian Wheeler, of Wood River, Illinois. Wheeler’s beard secured her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, no less, by coming in at more than 10 inches in length. Wheeler is rightly proud of her facial hair. But just like every other beard-wearer, it’s important for her health to keep that beard clean.

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