Facial hair may have health benefits, from improving your immune system to protecting your face from the sun
Does a moustache maketh the man? Movember co-founder Justin Coghlan – JC for short – reckons so. “I have seen it bring on a great new persona in guys so many times,” he explains. “It’s almost like Clark Kent turning into Superman.”
JC, an Australian who helped to pioneer the global charity campaign that asks men to grow a moustache during November to raise funds for men’s health, says the confidence that a little facial fuzz gives most men is infectious. “They have this out-of-this-world experience for 30 days where they challenge themselves,” he says. “It gets everyone in a really good mood which is awesome to see and, more importantly, gets a conversation going about Movember.”
But while the aim is to raise money for – and awareness of – men’s health issues such as testicular cancer, could cultivating face furniture possibly be healthy as well as hip and altruistic?
Research from Australia suggests there is indeed more to men’s facial hair than fashion and a lackadaisical attitude to personal grooming. A study by professors Barnaby Dixson and Robert Brooks of the University of New South Wales, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour in April 2013, found that beards may be seen as a sign of physical fitness. Their research showed that while women perceived men with heavy stubble as the most attractive, men with full, bristling beards were considered healthier and better potential parents, despite (or perhaps because of) being seen as more aggressive.
One explanation for this could be that facial hair may indicate a better immune system. In a paper in Behavioural Ecology by Dixson and Paul Vasey in 2012, the authors point to a connection between beards and immunity. Because, as the paper put it: “Hair on the face and body are potential localised breeding sites for disease-carrying ectoparasites”, it is argued that any man able to grow and maintain a beard must be more resilient to illnesses – “advertising their superior immune system through possessing a trait that is immunologically costly”.
Of course, the power of facial hair to attract or repulse the opposite sex may come as no surprise to the moustachioed hipster, but other than finding a potential partner with a fetish for fuzz, are there other tangible health benefits? Yes, say scientists at the University of Southern Queensland. They claim beards can help to block out the sun’s harmful rays. The study published in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry found that a full bushy beard offered protection levels similar to factor 21 sunscreen – a reduction in the UV of 50 to 95%.
But before you throw out the Ambre Solaire and the razor, professor Alfio Parisi, a member of the team that conducted the study in the scorching Australian outback using mannequins and fake beards, admits that, while a hairy face provides more protection from the sun’s UVB rays, its effectiveness against the dangerous, cancer-causing UVA is “much lower”.
Dr Bav Shergill of the British Association of Dermatologists also warns against growing a beard as a substitute for proper sun protection, but the skin cancer specialist does admit that for some people facial hair can be extremely beneficial. Folliculitis barbae, a type of skin rash, is a common condition in Afro-Caribbean men, Dr Shergill says. He claims many of today’s black pop stars have grown carefully shaped beards, precisely to stop them having to shave around their chins.
Dr Shergill explains: “For those patients [with folliculitis barbae] I would encourage them to grow a beard. They can then close crop it without actually scraping their skin, which leads to inflammation of the hair follicles.”
Without proper maintenance and care, even the most carefully trimmed beard or twizzled moustache can be a detriment to a man’s health, rather than a boon. Dr Sunil Chopra of the London Dermatology Centre gives little credence to other scientists’ claims that beards bring health benefits, insisting there is actually more chance of infection with a beard than a clean-shaven face. Facial hair is more likely to trap bacteria and food – the increased risk to hygiene is why British surgeons are advised to cover their beards when operating.
And while a well-kept beard can prevent the common bacterial infections men get from shaving, GP Dr Bram Brons of HealthExpress.co.uk says neglected fuzz can lead to more than just a tangled mess.
“One of the biggest disadvantages is pubic lice, also known as crabs, that can live in beards,” he says. “If you don’t care for your beard, it will begin to smell in a similar way to a sweaty and unwashed armpit. The smell can be a sign that bacteria are living in the beard, and they could eventually cause a number of ailments.”
The solution? Treat the hair on your face with as much care as the mop on your head. That means washing daily, using conditioner and applying beard oil to soften the hairs and avoid itching and discomfort.
But while some of the physical health benefits of facial hair remain up for debate, growing a mo this month might not only might make you feel good – it could save another man’s life. In a survey of more than 1,200 Movember participants last year, 67% recommended someone else see a doctor as a result of the campaign and 43% became more aware and educated about the health risks they face. Whether you sport a handlebar or an Errol Flynn pencil moustache, that’s worth chucking away a razor for.