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Frank Bures: Of bacteria and beards and Bowser

May 19, 2019

A curious article appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Science and Health section, about a study of bacterial counts done of men’s beards and dogs’ hair. It found that the beards beat Bowser’s fur for higher bacterial counts of all kinds, even disease causing breeds. It piqued my twisted interest as to the purpose of the study.

In “looking it up on Google” there at are least two dozen news articles from every source imaginable reporting on this study (which might suggest how twisted folks are?) Published in the February 2019 European Radiology journal, it didn’t identify country of origin, but all the authors had Germanic names, making Germany, Austria or Switzerland possible. Apparently in their medical world, dogs are allowed to use the same MRI scanners as humans do. They were trying to assess if the animals had more bacteria of any kind on their fur than men had on their beards, as a model for nesting sites of microscopic critters along with gravy, etc. You sense an inherent bias in the study right away?

The tests were done in a European hospital that performs around 8,000 MRI scans of humans per year. Culture swabs were done of 18 men and 30 dogs. Samples from man’s best friend were taken from between their shoulder blades, since it is a spot more prone to infections. Both mammals’ oral cavities were also sampled. The MRI scanning table was cleaned after each dog, and bacterial counts showed significantly lower numbers than a scanner used for just people.

The results of each species’ “fur” showed all the men, 18/18, had high microbial counts, and 23/30 of the dogs. The men’s mouths also had higher counts, which is surprising to me. I used to do ER work, and stereotypically a dog bite was one of the worst for infection with nasty critters. Human bites weren’t great either. Probably still aren’t. (Now do we tell the old joke Man Bites Dog?) Disease causing bacteria breeds were found in 7/18 men and 4/30 of dogs.

The authors concluded bearded men harbor significantly more microbes than dogs, and dogs are no risk to humans if they use the same MRI (maybe not at the same time). So many of the news reports put their own “spin” on the results, as you can imagine. One British article quoted the founder of the Beard Liberation Front, which opposes discrimination against the hirsute: “I think it’s possible to find all sorts of unpleasant things if you took swabs from people’s hair and hands (and he’s correct, especially noses.) I don’t believe that beards in themselves are unhygienic. The constant stream of negative stories about beards suggest it’s more about pogonophobia(?) than anything else.” This was a new word learning opportunity for me. The roots of the word — not the beard — are pogon, Greek for beard, and phobos, Greek for fear.

Should beards cause fear or infatuation, especially medically? That pendulum has swung to both extremes over the centuries. In 2015 one rather lame study fostered by a TV station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, became the story “virus du jour” for a while. A news crew swabbed “a handful of beards randomly” and submitted them to a lab company, Quest, a giant national company. The company microbiologist, John Golobic, declared on TV: “I’m usually not surprised, and I was by this.” The station reported the beards “contained a lot of normal bacteria, but some were comparable to toilets.” Golobic: “There would be a degree of uncleanliness that would be somewhat disturbing.” The study was not done well on several fronts, but it keeps resurfacing, like a bogus conspiracy theory. Another study was cited to contradict the attitude generated by the TV station findings. It came from Britain, published in 2014, comparing cultures of 408 men’s faces, bearded and shaven, finding little difference between the two. No women were included. Some bacteria normally found in bowels were grown from the MRI study’s crop, with no hint of poor hygiene.

Yet another 2016 study from University College London by a microbiologist, sort of in response to the TV station study, swabbed 20 beards randomly from London streets, and were able to grow over 100 strains of bacteria over a 4-week period. They were mostly ones found on skin normally. They then inoculated them into lab media containing bad bugs to see what bacteria killed off what others, since all organisms compete to survive. Around a quarter of the bacteria from beards were able to kill the resistant bacterial strains in the medium, demonstrating that they actually produce antibiotics themselves. This fostered the idea that beard bugs might be good for you! So go the battles.

In 2015 an academic historian of medicine and the body from Exeter University, England, began a project to chart the health and hygiene history of facial hair. You can see it has experienced many forms and attitudes over time. After the TV negative conclusion he wrote, “In the 1660s the English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller was referring in print to the beard as ‘that ornamental excrement under the chin.’ Beards or bugs, you decide.

I’ll bet you had no idea of the rather lengthy, unsettled history of beards beliefs. I didn’t. With the MRI study focus we can at least feel that sharing the exorbitantly expensive machine with man’s best friends is medically economical and hygienic. And it is not just a shaggy dog story.

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