Good News for Hipsters and Rabbis: Your Beard Could Save You From Superbugs

Research shocker shows that hospital workers with facial hair are less likely to harbor certain superbugs than those who shave.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A study of men who work in hospitals found that the clean-shaven ones are more likely to harbor superbugs than men with facial hair. (Illustrative picture shows Mr. MJ Johnson promoting the National Beard and Moustache Championships in New York, November 6, 2015.)
Perhaps surprisingly, men with facial hair were found to harbor less superbugs than men who shave.Credit: Reuters

Could it be that facial hair is good for a man's health?

Unshockingly, bearded men harbor more bacteria on their faces than clean-shaven men. Stands to reason, and not only because of food and other particles clinging to that curly hair. The surprise reported in the journal of the Healthcare Infection Society is that clean-shaven hospital workers tended to harbor more "superbugs" - antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Note however that the differences are not enormous – growing facial fur just to keep the doctor away probably won't work.

That said, among the 408 test subjects the study checked, the clean-shaven men were three times more likely to be colonized with antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, for instance.

The normal S. aureus is an extremely common germ found in our noses and mucous membranes. Usually it does nothing much, but it can cause various skin diseases and even food poisoning. This unimpressive germ was more common in the shaven men than the bearded ones, but not by much – 41% of bearded men harbored the germ, compared with  almost 53% of shaven men.

The nastier version of the bacteria is MRSA, which simply stands for "methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus". There, 2% of bearded men and 7% of shaven men were found to host the beast.

No difference in colonization rates with was found regarding Gram-negative bacteria (which refers merely to a class of bacteria).

Why would bearded men have less staph?

One possibility is the same reason that, researchers now say, living with dogs and cats is healthy for kids – the animals and their dirt challenge our immune systems, in a good way. Another more likely possibility is that men who shave nick their skin, and bacteria adore a nice wound.

Antibiotic resistance has become an enormous problem in modern healthcare. Arguably the cause was over-use, and improper use, of antibiotics, which wound up encouraging the evolution of resistant mutants. Being hotbeds of antibiotic use and abuse, and a focal point for the sick, hospitals have naturally become breeding grounds for so-called superbugs.

Israel is no exception. Generally the Health Ministry blames the proliferation of superbugs in Israeli hospitals on crowding.

Illustrating the gravity of the problem, a study commissioned by the British government that was published last December projected 10 million human deaths a year, globally, from just six superbugs – one of them MRSA – which would make them a worse killer than cancer.  And that is considered a conservative estimate.

The month before, in November, the world learned of a new form of bacteria totally unmoved by all known antibiotics – a strain of the Escherichia coli that lives in our intestines. This bacteria was found in China, where it was first detected in farm animals, then in the farmers. Worst of all, it seems the bacteria could spread the immunity-granting gene (called MCR-1) between them, not only pass it onto the next generation. If you think facial hair will help protect against these germs, knock yourself out.