It’s an age-old debate: Are beards clean or a magnet for germs and bacteria?
Last year, we were told that men’s beards could be dirtier than a toilet because they collect bacteria. “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet,” declared one headline.
But before you reach for the razor to shave off your hipster beard, let’s take a closer look at the evidence. Where did the story about beards being “as dirty as toilets” come from?
Rather than a peer-reviewed study in a scientific or medical journal, the research involved a TV news crew swabbing “a handful” of beards in Albuquerque, NM. The samples were then tested by John Golobic, a microbiologist from Quest Diagnostics, who declared on KOAT-TV, “I’m usually not surprised, and I was surprised by this.”
The station reported several of the beards they tested “contained a lot of normal bacteria, but some were comparable to toilets.” Golobic concluded: “There would be a degree of uncleanliness that would be somewhat disturbing.”
After the story went viral, some commentators pointed out that although there was no reason to doubt what Golobic found, the approach to the study fell far short of the best science.
For instance, there was no mention of swabbing clean-shaven men. Since bacteria gets on to all sorts of surfaces, including skin, this might have told us what we really need to know: Do beards harbor more bacteria than a clean-shaven face?
The debate about hygiene and beards sprouted again last week. The BBC and The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a “recent” study debunking the idea that beards are dirty.
The research was published in 2014 in the Journal of Hospital Infection and supports the view that growing a beard is no health hazard. Researchers compared bacterial colonization on the faces of 408 male health care workers with and without facial hair.
The teams found little difference between the two, but the results did show that some species of bacteria were more likely to be found in those without beards.
The researchers say there were a few limitations to their study, including not being able to assess whether the density of men’s beards could affect bacterial colonization.