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Though a widely-cited 2019 study claimed that beards carry more germs than dog fur, researchers have since determined that the germs on a beard are not much different than the germs on clean-shaven skin.
But it is still important to keep your beard clean by using a beard wash and brushing it frequently to get rid of dead skin cells.
Some kinds of bacteria that may be on your beard (as well as your skin) are staphylococcus, streptococcus, and enterococcus.
While we can't see it or feel it, our skin is covered in germs. Human skin hosts a plethora of bacteria, most of which are harmless to us. But what about facial hair?
A viral 2019 study published in European Radiology showed that men's beards contain more germs than dog fur, which sparked debate about the cleanliness of facial hair, and whether beards harbor illness-causing germs.
Beards carry germs, but so does clean-shaven skin
Beards do carry germs, but here's the thing: Our skin, including our face, carries bacteria all the time, regardless of facial hair status.
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"It's really no different than what we already have on our skin. I think beards get a bad reputation," says Sara Hogan, MD, MHS, Dermatologist and Health Sciences Clinical Instructor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "We have a complex microbiome on our skin. Everything's always in flux, and it's a very complex microenvironment."
According to Hogan, the skin microbiome consists most commonly of aerobic bacteria like staphylococcus and streptococcus, viruses, yeast, and even tiny mites called Demodex that live in or near hair follicles.
A 2014 study published in The Journal of Hospital Infection compared the bacterial ecology of 408 male hospital workers' facial hair to determine if those with beards carried more bacteria.
Researchers found the bacterial colonization in both groups comparable, with the prevalence of staphylococcus aureus actually being slightly less (41.2%) in those with facial hair than those who were clean shaven (52.6%). It's worth noting that the sample size of 408 men was significantly larger than the sample size of the viral 2019 study, which was just 18 men.
These aforementioned bacteria — or really any bacteria — can get into somebody's beard a couple of ways. According to Suzanne Willard, PhD, APN-c, Associate Dean of Global Health at Rutgers School of Nursing, germs get there the same way they get into any other part of our body: through our hands, other peoples' hands, and airborne germs flying in.
If you're trying to protect yourself from airborne germs by using a face mask, facial hair is definitely a concern. With masks, particularly N95 respirators, a tight fit is crucial. Facial hair can render a mask ineffective if the hair isn't allowing the mask to create the secure seal, according to both Hogan and Willard.
There are certain facial hairstyles that are more conducive to masks, and the CDC has a handy infographic showing styles that are better for allowing a tight seal. Spoiler: mustaches are pretty much the safest style for a mask if you aren't going to be clean-shaven.
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If you have a beard, you don't have to go run and shave it off. "If we aren't telling folks to shave their heads, we should not be making guys shave their beards," says Willard. However, she urges the importance of keeping beards clean and wants to remind men that clean-shaven does not mean germ-free.
To keep your beard clean, Hogan recommends washing it as often as you wash the hair on your scalp, usually a few times a week, as well as regularly brushing it to help lift off any dead skin cells underneath the hair.
Some beard washes or shampoos do have an antibacterial element, but whether a shampoo is antibacterial or not isn't as important as the act of cleansing in and of itself. The FDA says there isn't enough evidence to say that using an antibacterial soap or cleanser when washing your hands is better at killing germs than using a regular cleanser, and Hogan says the same goes for beard washing. Just make sure you're thoroughly massaging the cleanser into the beard and rinsing thoroughly to get rid of the germs.
What's even more important than keeping your beard clean is practicing good hygiene in general, especially hand hygiene. Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently, as well as distancing yourself from those who may be sick, are crucial for good health — so keep your primary focus on that.
The kinds of germs that may be on your face or in your beard
Research surrounding bacteria in beards is limited, so we don't have a lot of information regarding the specifics, but the two types of bacteria confirmed to be carried in beards are staphylococcus and enterococcus, according to the 2019 study.
Staphylococcus, or staph for short, is a common bacteria found on the skin. Staphylococcus aureus is one of the most widespread types. This bacteria is usually harmless, but it can cause infections if the situation is fertile, like if the bacteria enter the body through a cut.
Staphylococcus is associated with skin infections that can range from mild to more severe, such as in the case of MRSA. If the staph bacteria enter the body and make their way to the lungs, it can even cause pneumonia. Bacteremia, which is an infection in the blood, can also occur if the staph bacteria enters the bloodstream. Bacteremia can progress into sepsis, which can be deadly.
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Most of the streptococcus bacteria on your skin are group B streptococcus, which is not the strain responsible for things like strep throat or scarlet fever. Group B, however, is often carried in the intestines or the genital tract and is mostly harmless for healthy adults. But this kind of bacteria is dangerous to infants, who can contract blood infections or pneumonia. Pregnant women should be particularly careful about coming into contact with streptococcus B.
Enterococcus is commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract of healthy people. It's one of the many bacteria that make up the gut flora. In the study, the specific type of enterococcus the researchers found in beards was Enterococcus faecalis. It's standard for this bacteria to be a part of healthy gut microbiome, but as with staph, this bacteria also has the potential to cause serious infections.
Enterococcus faecalis is one of the main culprits of causing urinary tract infections (UTIs), if the bacteria enter the urinary tract. If a UTI is left untreated, it can spread to the kidneys. Similarly to staphylococcus, it can also cause wound infections and bacteremia.
In addition to these bacteria, men with beards may also be at risk of contracting lice or seborrheic dermatitis, which is a skin condition that causes redness or scaly patches.