The truth about facial hair and the rise of the 'ninja beard bug'

Beard

More than half of British men now boast some sort of facial hair.

The beard has been back for a few years with various claims about them harbouring germs and food.

But is a furry face really all that unhygienic?

New research shows there may actually be health benefits in beards.

We take a look at how we got to the beardy place that is the UK in 2016 and why the new findings are significant.

Man with a large moustache

How we reached 'peak beard'

Sideburns were fashionable in 1853. By 1892 full beards were most popular and then in 1917 the moustache was trending (and before you ask - yes, someone scientifically studied this). But for the last few years it's been all about beards.

A 2015 survey commissioned by Braun revealed that Cardiff and Birmingham are the joint UK beard capitals - with 62% of Welsh and Midland cities' men sporting facial hair. London came a close second with 57%.

Why beards are big

One study that looked at 154 species of primate suggests that in complex big societies beards can function as attention-grabbing "badges" to give a competitive edge over other males and help attract a partner as well.

Another study suggests that the more beards there are, the less attractive they become - so, sadly we may well have hit "peak beard".

Beard graphic

It takes British men, on average 67 days to grow "the perfect beard".

To get a feel for the competition check out the 2015 World Beard and Moustache Championships' competitors.

'As dirty as toilets'?

Pogonophobes (those with a phobia of beards) had their worst fears confirmed last April when a TV news channel carried out a small study and concluded that some beards are "as dirty as toilets".

In a more rigorous study, the bugs on the face of hospital staff, with and without facial hair, were compared.

Turns out that, although colonisation by bugs is similar with and without beards, the clean-shaven men were three times as likely to be harbouring the antibiotic-resistant form of the S. aureus bacterium known as MRSA.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on a hair
Image caption Staphylococcus aureus bacteria on a hair

Staphylococcus aureus is incredibly common, colonising the noses of a third of people in the UK.

It is usually harmless but some strains, like the superbug MRSA, are associated with disease and if a full-blown infection sets in, the result can include life-threatening symptoms.

iWonder: Why do I have to share my body with so many bugs?

Shaving can cause mini wounds "which may support bacterial colonisation and proliferation" according to the hospital study.

So will beards save us all?

The BBC's Trust Me, I'm a Doctor team carried out their own experiment and found out that beards can actually fight infection.

The team swabbed the beards of nine random men and sent them off to Dr Adam Roberts at University College London, to see what bugs he could grow from the samples.

Dr Roberts grew more than 100 types of bacteria from them.

This may sound like a large number but is nothing to worry about - after all you are mostly made up of bugs, many of which you need to stay healthy.

When you get a competitive environment like a beard, there are many different bacteria, they fight for food resources and space
Dr Adam Roberts
University College London

He then saw something more exciting.

He noticed that one beard bug was killing other bacteria. "When you get a competitive environment like a beard, there are many different bacteria, they fight for food resources and space, so they produce things like antibiotics" he says.

There have been no new antibiotics released in the past 30 years.

Antiobiotic resistance is rising with antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" already causing around 400,000 infections and 25,000 deaths in Europe every year. Unless new ones are found, we face a future where a cough or cut could kill once again.

'Ninja beard bug'

Adam identified the ninja beard bug as skin bacterium S. epidermidis and found that it could attack a drug-resistant form of E. coli (yep, the one that can cause urinary tract infections and may cause food poisoning). The chances that this "beardcillin" antibiotic will be purified, tested and sold are very slim but it may have other uses.

E.coli bacterium
Image caption Escherichia coli bacterium
bacteria around a pore
Image caption Bacteria around a skin pore

Your largest organ - your skin - is home to around 1,000 different strains of bacteria including Staphylococcus epidermidis which in Adam's beard sample was able to fight offantibiotic resistant Escherichia coli.

iWonder: Why do I have to share my body with so many bugs?

So beards may help us discover new medicines.

Chris Van Tulleken presenting Trust Me I'm A Doctor

Trust Me I'm A Doctor is on BBC Two at 20:00 tonight - or later on BBC iPlayer.

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