Last May, bearded men across the country were reaching for their shavers after the news broke that their beloved facial hair is likely to contain as much fecal matter as a toilet. But new research suggests this is not the case. In fact, surprising as it seems, a man’s beard may aid the fight against antibiotic resistance.

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A man’s facial hair may contain bacteria that produce antibiotics.

Yes, you read right. Whether a man has a “Van Dyke,” a “chin curtain” or a “goatee,” that lovingly styled facial hair could be key to developing new antibiotics.

The claims come from a team led by Dr. Adam Roberts, a microbiologist at University College London (UCL) in the UK, who has spent the last few years attempting to uncover new medicines that could overcome drug resistance – an issue that has become a major public health concern.

Every year, more than 2 million people in the US develop antibiotic-resistant infections, and more than 23,000 people die as a result of such infections.

Antibiotic resistance has become such a problem across the globe that in 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that we are headed for a “post-antibiotic era,” where infections that were once treatable could become life-threatening.

While improving antibiotic prescribing and the use of antibiotics are important to tackling drug resistance, there is another major barrier that needs to be overcome: the development of new antibiotics.

There has been a steep decline in the research and production of new antibiotics in recent decades. For example, a 2004 report from the Infectious Diseases Society of America revealed that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for new antibiotics fell by 56% between 1998-2002.

What is more, of 89 new drugs that were approved by the FDA in 2002, none of them were new antibiotics.

Lack of new antibiotics means we have been using the same medications to fight bacterial infections for years, giving bacteria plenty of time to evolve and develop resistance to these drugs.

“What we’ve done as a human species is to basically coat the world in antibiotics by our overuse and inappropriate use. So, we’ve selected for these resistance mechanisms in the bacteria, so it’s why we’re seeing the problem that we’re seeing now,” Dr. Roberts told Reuters.

As such, producing new antibiotics is a key focus for researchers, and Dr. Roberts and his team believe something as simple as facial hair could help reach this goal.

Let’s face it. Beards have not exactly held the best reputation when it comes to hygiene, and this reputation has been largely fueled by one study published last year suggesting that a man’s beard is just as dirty as a toilet.

In the study – conducted for news site KOAT7 – microbiologist John Golobic, from Quest Diagnostics in New Mexico, and colleagues randomly swabbed a number of beards and discovered the presence of gut bacteria that is normally found in feces.

Fast facts about beards
  • Beards grow an average of 5.5 inches each year
  • A man with a beard has an average of 30,000 whiskers on his face
  • If a man never shaved, his beard would reach an average of 27.5 ft long.

Although Golobic said most of the bacteria in beards is unlikely to cause illness, he described the results as “a little concerning.”

“There would be a degree of uncleanliness that would be somewhat disturbing,” he added, noting that if a city discovered similar samples within a water system, it would need to be closed down for disinfecting.

While the results are likely to have caused many men to become clean shaven, some researchers claimed there was no substance to the findings, noting that most of the bacteria identified in the study are also found on our skin.

“It’s not problematic and it’s not a health risk,” Prof. Hugh Pennington, an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen in the UK, told The Daily Mail.

In fact, previous research has suggested that a man’s facial hair may actually protect them against drug-resistant infections.

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, researchers swabbed the faces of 408 male heath care workers with and without facial hair. They found that those with facial hair were less likely to be colonized with Methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) – a bacterial species that is resistant to most antibiotics and is a leading cause of health care-associated infections.

And taking into account the recent research conducted by Dr. Roberts and colleagues, it seems beards could actually be a key player in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

For the study – conducted as part of the UK BBC show “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” – Dr. Roberts and colleagues swabbed the beards of 20 men on the streets of London.

From the samples, the researchers were able to grow more than 100 strains of bacteria over a 4-week period; the bacteria mainly consisted of species that are found on the skin.

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Researchers identified a bacterium grown from beard samples that attacked and killed a form of drug-resistant E. coli.

They did identify traces of a bacteria called Barnesiella that is present in the small intestine, but they note that this does not necessarily mean it came from fecal matter.

Next, they tested the bacteria against indicator strains of drug-resistant bacteria.

“What we do is grid out the individual bacteria on an agar plate which has been pre-inoculated with an indicator strain,” Dr. Roberts explained to Reuters. “And then we see if that indicator strain can grow right up to the individual colonies from the beards or from anywhere else that we’ve got these bacteria from.”

The researchers were surprised to find that around a quarter of the bacteria grown from the beard samples were able to kill the indicator strains, “showing that they actually produce antibiotics themselves,” according to Dr. Roberts.

In particular, the team found that a bacterium grown from the beard samples called Staphylococcus epidermidis effectively attacked and killed a form of drug-resistant Escherichia coli.

The researchers say it is possible that just as some bacteria have evolved to develop drug resistance, other bacteria have evolved to produce toxins that can kill drug-resistant species.

“When you get a competitive environment like a beard where there are many different bacteria, they fight for food resources and space, so they produce things like antibiotics,” Dr. Roberts told The Daily Mail.

Not only should these findings provide reassurance for men concerned about beard hygiene, but they also suggest that many men may be walking around with the cure to antibiotic resistance in their facial fuzz.

However, it is likely to be a very long time before doctors will be prescribing beard-inspired antibiotics for bacterial infections.

Producing and testing a new antibiotic is very time-consuming, complex and expensive, and – according to Dr. Brad Spellburg, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) – it is not economically sensible for pharmaceutical companies.

“[…] antibiotics are short-course therapies, and companies know that they will make much more money selling a drug you have to take every day for the rest of your life,” he said in a newsletter published by the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA).

Furthermore, most attempts to develop new antibiotics have failed, which may hamper hopes to move forward with this latest discovery.

“Drug screens for new antibiotics tend to rediscover the same lead compounds over and over again,” said Dr. Spellburg. “There have been more than 100 antibacterial agents developed for use in humans in the US since sulfonamides. Each new generation that has come to us has raised the bar for what is necessary to discover and develop the next generation.”

Still, Dr. Roberts and his team continue to be enthusiastic about their findings, and they have even expanded their research to isolate bacteria from other sources that can kill drug-resistant strains.

“We’ve got other samples from all over the country, from child’s trampolines, to fridges, to cats,” Dr. Roberts told Reuters. “We’ve now got a selection of around 50 different bacteria which can kill multiple indicator strains.”

He notes that these indicator strains include E. coli, MRSA and Candida albicans.

“So we’re concentrating our efforts now on finding out exactly what these bacteria are producing, because there’s just a small possibility that it might be a novel antibiotic.”