How Filthy Is Your Beard?

A cost-benefit analysis of manliness and microbiology

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Journalism is, at its core, a public service. This is why several days ago the reporters at Action 7 News in Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided to investigate just what, exactly, teems within the beards of the polity. They swabbed the whiskers of a handful of local men and took the results to Quest Diagnostics.

The results were the kind that medical labs don't leave on your answering machine:

Several of the beards that were tested contained a lot of normal bacteria, but some were comparable to toilets.

“Those are the types of things you'd find in (fecal matter),” Golobic said, referring to the tests.

Even though some of the bacteria won’t lead to illness, Golobic said it’s still a little concerning.

But are these results typical? Are they limited to these few unfortunate Albuquerqueans? Or is kissing a bearded man the bacterial equivalent of directly applying a sample lipstick that's chained to the makeup display at Target?

Some doctors have suggested that beard hair can be a bristly breeding ground for germs. “Beard hair; it’s coarser. It has the shape of a bayonet, a round, convexed bottom and then comes up the side to a point,” Carol Walker, a consultant trichologist at Birmingham Trichology Centre, told the U.K.'s Daily Mail. “The cuticles on the hair—which are like layers of tiles on a roof—trap the germs and grease."

In 1967, scientists sprayed bearded and clean-shaven men with bacteria, then tried to collect the bacteria from their faces (by swabbing, stroking, and imprinting ... oh my). They found that beards harbored more "more bacteria in general, the clean shaven men always had less bacteria recovered from their faces than the bearded men, suggesting that 'that bacteria hold more tenaciously to the beard than to the face,'" as Scientopia noted.

Then, in 2000, another study found that when 10 bearded and 10 clean-shaven men wore surgical masks, the bearded ones shed significantly more bacteria onto agar plates below their lips—especially if they "wiggled" the masks. The study authors recommended that bearded surgeons try not to wiggle their face masks. "Bearded males may also consider removing their beards," they added joylessly.

Still, the Quest worker from the Albuquerque news spot only said that beards harbor the types of bacteria you'd typically find in the gut—and thus, in poop. But other parts of the skin can also sometimes be contaminated with these bugs. Reportedly, there's about a one in six chance that your iPhone is home to poop particles. All of this led The Guardian's to conclude, "There is more crap in these stories about poo in beards than there is in beards."

There probably is some truth to the idea that a beard, like any other body part, can get pretty funky if you let it. The Albuquerque story might discourage some would-be beard-bearers, which is a shame, because beards are so hot right now. Matthew McConaughey has one, for cryin' in the mud. Beards are the perfect way to say, "I don't care about society!" while simultaneously saying "I care enough that every few days I will ransack the bathroom in search of the right electric-razor attachment, and then spend many minutes trimming my beard and determining its borders." Beard is the new black.

To men who decide, in the face of this Albuquerque news, to embrace their chin curtains, I offer my applause. I also offer the recommendation of a nice beard wash, which will sanitize that stubble in no time.