Once only the stuff of aging hippies and spiritual gurus, beards have had a meteoric renaissance in the past decade. However, as tempting as that coffee-shop-dwelling lumbersexual look might be, you might want to put some background research into future grooming (or lack of grooming) habits.
Reporting in the journal European Radiology, doctors at the Hirslanden Clinic in Switzerland compared the levels of human-pathogenic microorganisms in specimens taken from a small sample of 18 bearded guys and 30 dogs. In addition, they compared levels of bacterial contamination of an MRI scanner used by dogs and humans.
Funnily enough, the aim of the research was to discover whether an MRI scanner shared by dogs and humans could potentially threaten the health of patients.
To their surprise, the bearded men appeared to be more of a health risk than the dogs. All 18 of the men showed high microbial counts, whereas only 23 of the 30 dogs had high microbial counts and seven had moderate microbial counts. Worse still, seven out of 18 of the beards contained human-pathogenic microorganisms, including Enterococcus faecalis and Staphylococcus aureus, while just four out of 30 dogs harbored the pathogens.
“On the basis of these findings, dogs can be considered as 'clean' compared with bearded men,” the study concludes.
“We showed that dogs do not pose a significant hygiene risk to humans even if they utilize the same MRI scan facility. The beards of men harbor significantly more microbes than the neck fur of dogs and these microbes were significantly more pathogenic to humans.”
So, should we all be armed with a shaver and run in fear from the human beard? Probably not, no. The world is awash with around 1 trillion species of bacteria, which can be found in pretty much every corner and crevice on Earth, from the openings of deep-sea hydrothermal vents to the self-order touchscreens at McDonald’s. The human body is no different. In fact, a huge proportion of our total body cell count is not human; many cells in our bodies are actually microbial colonists. Human skin alone is inhabited by as many as 1,000 species of bacteria.
While the study didn’t go into the precise quantities of pathogenic bacteria, it’s safe to assume that a human beard is not much worse than a grubby hand after a couple of hours of day-to-day life. You are unlikely to get sick from a close encounter with a beard.
The findings of this very limited study need to be taken with a pinch of salt, much like the often-touted statistic of your phone carrying seven times more dangerous lurgies than a toilet seat. Granted, your phone is a safe haven for microbes, but most toilet seats are not nearly as filthy as you might assume.
That said, we probably won’t go around licking toilet seats, smartphones, dogs, or beards from now on.