Is your facial hair a health hazard? What's really growing in your beard
Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30
If you were going in search of a novel antibiotic, where might you start? In a rainforest? A remote mountaintop? Well, how about combing through a beard? On Trust Me, I'm a Doctor, we do lots of experiments, and like all experimenters, we often find things we didn't quite expect.
One of my favourite findings from a previous series was the discovery that you can cut the calories in pasta by cooking, cooling and then reheating it. When you do that you change the structure of the pasta, turning it into "resistant starch". Carbs become more like fibre, and the result is lower blood-sugar spikes and more of the pasta passes through you without being absorbed.
That was certainly an interesting and novel finding. But the discovery of microbes growing in a beard, microbes that may be producing a novel type of antibiotic, was of a higher order of unexpectedness.
I've never grown any form of facial hair and I've never been tempted to do so. My father had a Hitler-style toothbrush moustache for many years and we were all delighted when he finally shaved it off.
Our remote ape-like ancestors would, of course, have been extremely hairy. Over the millennia much of it went, probably for hygiene reasons. If you are living in close groups, lots of facial and body hair will harbour lice and other parasites.
So why is it that men, at least some men, are still able and willing to hide their faces behind a beardy bush?
The obvious explanation is that it is a mark of virility, a form of peacocking. Charles Darwin (a noticeably hirsute Victorian gentleman) explained their persistence on the basis of sexual selection. If women find beards sexy, men will grow them, despite the potential downsides.
In modern times, when we have ready access to clean water and the finest grooming products, are beards still a threat to public health? Critics claim a beard is inevitably going to trap microbe-rich drippings from your nose, plus any food you may have smeared or dribbled on your face.
Pogonophobes (people who are afraid of beards) had their worst fears confirmed by a recent report from a small study in New Mexico, where they found traces of enteric bacteria, the sort usually found living in your intestine, in the beards of men who had been swabbed for a TV show.
The microbiologist who analysed the samples, Dr John Golobic, was quoted as saying, "those are the types of things you'd find in faeces". Or, as one newspaper put it: "Some beards contain more poo than a toilet."
So should you shave that beard off right away?
A recent and rather more scientific study, which was carried out in an American hospital, came to very different conclusions. In this study, published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, they swabbed the faces of 408 hospital staff with and without facial hair. To their surprise, the researchers found that it was the clean-shaven staff who were more likely to be carrying nasties on their faces. In particular, they were more likely to be harbouring a species known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is a particularly troublesome because it is resistant to so many antibiotics. So, why should beards be protective? The researchers wondered if it was just that beards are harder to swab than plain skin or if shaving causes micro-abrasions "which may support bacterial colonisation and proliferation".
However, there is another explanation. Perhaps beards fight infection. How? Well, driven by curiosity the Trust Me team recently swabbed the beards of an assortment of men and sent them off to Dr Adam Roberts, a microbiologist based at University College London, to see what he could grow.
Roberts managed to grow more than 100 different bacteria, including one more commonly found in the small intestine. But, as he quickly explained, that doesn't mean it came from faeces. Such findings are normal and nothing to worry about.
What was far more interesting was something else that he noticed in our samples. In a few of the petri dishes, bacteria were dying. The most obvious suspect? A fellow microbe. If you are as small as a microbe then even the wispiest beard is like a giant rainforest. In this wilderness, there is a constant and vicious Game of Thrones fight to the death as bacteria and fungi fight it out for food, resources and space.
To compete, they have been known to evolve one the most sophisticated weapons known to microbe-kind: the antibiotic.
Penicillin, the first effective antibiotic, was discovered by Alexander Fleming when he noticed a ring of death on a dish of bacteria he had been growing. At the centre of the ring of death, he identified a fungus, the spore of which had accidentally blown into his lab from researchers further down the corridor. He realised that the fungi must be producing something that was killing the bacteria.
Once the magic substance in the Penicillium fungi had been successfully isolated, purified and shown to be a life-saver, other microbe-derived antibiotics soon followed. These included the cephalosporins (which work in a similar way to penicillin but are less likely to induce an allergic reaction) and streptomycin, the first effective treatment for TB. Could our mysterious microbe possibly follow in those illustrious footsteps? Could we really have found a potential candidate for a new antibiotic?
"Yes," said Roberts extremely cautiously, "potentially."
It turns out that the microbes he had spotted doing serious damage to their neighbours are from a common species of bacteria called Staphylococcus epidermidis. Some microbes kill by punching holes in their neighbour's cell walls, others (such as penicillin) by stopping the neighbours from building a wall in the first place. The way these staph kill is a total mystery, but they are certainly good at it. When he tested them against a particularly drug-resistant form of Escherichia coli (E. coli), the sort that cause urinary tract infections, they came through with flying colours. Purifying and properly testing a novel antibiotic is so expensive and has such a high-failure rate that it is extremely unlikely doctors will be prescribing beardicillin any time soon, but Roberts is deadly serious about looking for replacements for our stock of antibiotics. There have been no new antibiotics released in the past 30 years.
Through UCL Roberts has created a crowd-funded "swab and send" project where members of the public are encouraged to swab anything they think looks interesting and send it in. As well as our beard sample, he has identified a number of interesting microbes collected by the wpublic from places as diverse as horse manure and a garden trampoline, which he's testing in the lab.
From these microbes, they've recently isolated anti-adhesion protein, which stop bacteria binding to other surfaces. Potential uses include toothpaste and mouthwash, where they might stop acid-producing bacteria from sticking to enamel.
So in the light of all this new information, I wondered, briefly, if I should grow a beard. I tentatively raised the idea with my wife, but she wasn't keen so I have put that idea on hold.
'Trust Me, I'm A Doctor' is on BBC Two tonight at 8pm
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Trim and tidy: TV presenter and beard-wearer Brendan Courtney on keeping his facial hair in shape
'I've had a beard for about five years now, but I always had stubble and was never, ever a clean-shaven man. During the filming of my first pilot for RTÉ, the commissioning editor said "He hasn't shaved, he looks scruffy." I replied, "Well that's my look," because I was 24 and I didn't care.
"I hate wet shaving because it makes my skin feel so uncomfortable. My friend in London grew a beard and he has a very similar face shape to me, so I decided to grow one too.
"Mine was grown for comfort, and it was definitely before there was a massive trend for beards. I don't let it grow too long, because I have quite a long face already and I don't think it suits me or I need any extra length.
"Once I grew the beard, I was shocked to find that my stock went through the roof. Oh my God, I was literally a different person, and have definitely had a sexier life with it.
"Guys find it really attractive, because it's a very masculine thing. It's the one thing that men can do that women can't, so if you're into men, it denotes masculinity.
"I love a beard on a man, but I'm not mad about those massive, huge ones, but if you're young, enjoying life and into your aesthetic, then go for glory and grow it huge if you want. I thought the beard baubles at Christmas were a bit of craic and quite funny.
"There's an unacknowledged, subconscious code that the bigger the beard, the greater the man's virility. I know 100pc that blokes with bigger beards think they're more virile.
"When it comes to hygiene, the big tip is little and often, so get a really good, sharp scissors, and go at it every morning to keep the wiry hairs down. If food is getting caught in it, it's nothing to do with the beard, it's because you're a slob. Maybe close your mouth when you're eating?
"There are loads of specialist beards products and shops out there to really look after it. My partner Adam uses beard oil, and I think it's kind of shiny and creepy. Beards aren't supposed to be shiny!
"Adam and I actually look a bit alike, which is weird, and I absolutely love his beard. He has a proper brilliant, thick, dark beard - it's so good it makes me sick actually. I manage mine very well so I get away with it, but his is naturally Mediterranean-looking. He has a great beard, but he's nine years younger than me so that helps.
"There's another culture of tattoos and beards among boys who go to the gym all the time, but that's a whole other look. The problem with that is that it becomes very homogenised and everybody starts to look the same after a while. What starts out as a subculture of people trying to look different and resenting being called hipsters, ends up becoming mainstream and boring.
"We're seeing the rise of the moustache now, but you have to be really handsome to wear one. It's very Clark Gable-looking and can be really suave, or else it can look really creepy and people will clutch their children to themselves as you walk past.
- Andrea Smith