May 31, 2016

Your fashionable facial hair might offer more than just Southern hipster flair.


Walk into a Nashville coffee shop, a pub, a deli and you’re sure to see several fellas with beards. That’s because the “not to shave” part of the “to shave or not to shave” question is currently on trend — and has been for a good five years in Music City.

Typically, celebrity influences and work requirements dictate a man’s decision of whether to grow facial hair, but now science may play a role, too. Beards may provide a little protection from infection and from sun exposure.

“This is a scratchy subject, but it grows on you,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In a recent study, researchers compared the facial bacterial colonization rates among male healthcare workers with and without facial hair. The results showed that, overall, colonization was similar on those with and without facial hair, but certain bacterial species were more prevalent on workers without facial hair. Researchers suggested that shaving might create “microabrasions,” leaving skin more prone to infection.

Don’t let such studies keep you from shaving, however, if that’s your preference. Instead just be careful how you shave. “It is true that if you shave with a blade as opposed to a razor, you could nick yourself,” Schaffner says. As for whether beards actually offer protection from infection, Schaffner adds, “I thought that was a real stretch.”

Another study showed that beards offer slight protection from the sun’s harmful rays. “Guys with beards can save a few pennies by not using as much sunscreen,” Schaffner says. But, of course, they need to wear it on exposed skin.

“Beards come in all shapes and sizes, and if you look at those old pictures at the turn of the previous century, those 1890s guys would have protection all the way down their chests,” Schaffner adds with a laugh.

One more factor may weigh heavily on facial hair grooming habits. “In the United States, the only major hazard of a man having a beard — and you’d have to ask the ladies about this,” Schaffner says, “is that during amorous moments, women may get scratches on their faces.”