If you’re a bearded man or love someone who has a beard, you may have recently heard the horrifying news rattling around the Internet that there is fecal bacteria in some men’s beards.
Or, as Buzzfeed so pithily put it: “It turns out men’s beards are covered in poop, says science.”
That unpleasant nugget of information comes courtesy of a swab analysis conducted by ABC affiliate KOAT in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Several bearded men volunteered to have the bacteria on their facial hairs analyzed, and what Quest Diagnostics microbiologist John Golobic found wasn’t pretty. While some beards hosted run-of-the-mill microbes, other beards had bacteria comparable to what's found in feces, Golobic told KOAT.
Now before you go shaving off that beautiful beard, keep in mind that the study was conducted by a TV station committed to ratings, not a university or research facility committed to scientific integrity. And remember that there’s harmful bacteria on surfaces in your office, supermarkets, hotel rooms, the gym and many other places where lots of human beings congregate together, as well as on oft-handled devices like mobile phones, TV remotes, telephones, ATM machines, escalator handrails and gas pumps.
There’s also trillions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies, some of them helpful and some of them harmful. For instance, a study published last December found traces of MRSA, human papilloma virus, Staphylococcus and herpes on the surfaces of public restrooms on a university campus. While this list of bacteria might set off alarm bells in your head, microbiologist and researcher Jack Gilbert of the University of Chicago said it is quite similar to the bacteria on the surfaces of your home because they’re the same bacteria that your body is constantly shedding.
“Human beings are just laden with bacteria, some of which have the propensity to cause disease. But for the most part they’re all commensal organisms,” said Gilbert in a press release about his study. "They’re hanging around with us and we’re perfectly healthy and aren’t causing us any danger or harm."
And finally, perhaps the biggest reason you should keep growing that luscious beard: identifying and classifying bacteria is still in its early stages. Just because a bacterium may be known for hanging out in one place (say, the colon), that doesn’t mean that it also isn’t naturally found in another place (say, your skin). Scientists estimate that we’ve been able to identify and analyze only a tiny fraction of the estimated 1030 (that’s 10 with thirty zeroes after it) individual bacteria out there, and we sure as heck haven't figured out all the functions of the bacteria we have been able to identify. For example, after getting the bacteria in her apartment genetically analyzed and finding that "not even science” could explain why some bacteria were found in her home, Sarah Zhang of Gizmodo explained the fraught world of bacteria classification this way:
In fact, sorting bacteria into categories based on where they come from, like skin, feces and soil, is really just our feeble human minds imposing artificial order on a natural world. A type of bacteria, Lactobacillaceae, might become known as fecal bacteria because we find a lot of it in the human gut, but that doesn't mean it grows there exclusively. Just because there is Lactobacillacae on my door frame (which, for the record, there was) doesn't mean it got there through a smear of poop.
Bottom line? Wash your beard as you would any other part of your body and don’t worry about accidentally eating poop particles -- not because you won't, but because you're probably going to regardless of the hair count on your chinny-chin-chin.