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Fact/Fiction: Are hipsters’ beards dirtier than a dog's fur?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we ask if growing face fuzz is bringing you a closer shave with death than playing fetch with your pet pooch

Fact/Fiction 1355 beard dog

How it was told

Beards have grown in the last few years – there’s no missing face fuzz at the height of male fashion, whether it’s designer stubble, a soup-snatching ’tache or a full outdoorsman beard.

But, unbeknownst to Brit blokes, they are secretly cultivating a hairy habitat for bacteria on their chin and, according to reports last week, it may be filthier than man’s best friend.

That was the theory first put across in The Mail on Sunday which proclaimed: “Men with beards carry more germs than DOGS with deadly bacteria in their facial hair, study reveals”.

And they weren’t the only news outlet to take the story off the leash.

The Sun opted for “FEELING RUFF: Men with beards carry more germs than dogs including deadly bacteria in facial fuzz” while the Daily Star also highlighted the “deadly bacteria”.

All three stories report a study by Professor Andreas Gutzeit of Switzerland’s Hirslanden Clinic, assessing the microbial counts on 18 beards from men aged between 18 and 76 and compared them to the fur from 30 dogs.

The research also attracted coverage in Metro, London Evening Standard and Yahoo! and garnered plenty of attention overseas.

But it’s The Times headline that invites us to “Face the facts: beards hold more germs than dogs’ fur”.

Let’s see if they stand up to some razor-sharp scrutiny.

Facts. Checked

While there certainly may be more bacteria in a beard than in dog fur, this is a case of its bark being worse than its bite.

This is not the first time that a study like this has been carried out (some having been supported by manufacturers of male grooming products) and for every one that paints beards as a danger zone, there is evidence to the contrary.

As for Gutzeit’s study, he said: “The researchers found a significantly higher bacterial load in specimens taken from the men’s beards compared with the dogs’ fur.”

That was on the basis that every man had high microbial counts compared to 23 out of the 30 dogs, while seven blokes had microbes that were a “threat to human health” on their facial topiary.

The stories triggered an angry response from the Beard Liberation Front’s Keith Flett, who has been banging the drum for facial hair since 1995. 

He stressed that he is aware of similar stories doing the rounds since 2015 and put the hysteria down to pogonophobia – the irrational fear of beards – and discrimination while nonetheless sharing some grooming tips. He’s on to something with the former, just last summer a study from Manchester Metropolitan University and Fragrance Direct found faecal matter in facial hair while in May 2015 a study in New Mexico found “more traces of poo in beards than in toilets”.

But rather than a close shave with a public health disaster, beards were even found to contain potentially beneficial bacteria in a 2016 BBC study.

In a response to stories like the above, their Trust Me I’m a Doctor series visited hipster haunt Camden in North London to swab beards before tasking microbiologist Dr Adam Roberts with analysing them.

He found more than 100 different bacteria from 20 beards but struggled to spot many that weren’t commonly found on skin. However, one – known as Barnesiella – was from the small intestine but could not be proven to come from faeces.

And far from unhygienic, the doctor even found one species that showed potential for research to develop new antibiotics. Couple that with a 2014 study on hospital workers’ facial hair that found “bacteria colonisation was similar in healthcare workers with and without facial hair” and there is little reason to reach for the razor just yet.

Image: Miles Cole

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