Beards are a weirdly commonly studied topic. Researchers around the world have long examined the effect a bit of bristle has on people other than the wearer – and in particular if it helps men woo potential partners.
In particular, researchers from the University of Queensland and University of New South Wales seem to be particularly enamoured. Their 2017 research has found that men with facial hair are found to be more attractive. Full beards seem particularly attractive for long-term relationships.
These preferences change with the popularity of facial hair. When heavy stubble and full beards were rarer, they were found more attractive. Likewise, when everyone grew a beard and clean shaven faces became rare, being squeaky smooth became attractive.
Dislike of beards may be a perception they’re grotty
Now, new research from the University of Queensland team has flagged another reason why some women aren’t down for hairy faces.
According to the research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, some women who find bearded men less attractive may be put-off due to their potential risk for carrying ticks, bugs and lice.
“We found women’s disgust towards ectoparasites – such as fleas that live on the skin – negatively affects preferences for men with beards,” says Barnaby Dixson, who oversaw the research (and has a beard).
In other words – women who are disgusted by ticks are less likely to find beards attractive, because they think they harbour nasties.
“This could be due to the increased cultural trends for men and women to remove hair in more regions of the body including their faces, chests, arms, legs and pubic region,” says Dixson.
On the other hand, women who had high levels of disgust for pathogens actually preferred men with beards, which the authors think may because of the parasite-stress theory. That theory suggests that people who are more likely to have encountered things that make them sick are perceived as more attractive as they’re likely to be more resistant to the pathogen.
The study surveyed more than 900 women about how attractive they found bearded and clean-shaven men for long-term and short-term relationships. But it wasn’t all bad news for beards. In general they found women rated beards higher for attractiveness compared with clean-shaven faces, particularly when judging potential for long-term rather than short-term relationships.
In general, the results showed a mixed link between attractiveness and beardiness.
But are beards actually infected sponges for shit?
But are they right? Maybe beards are grotty and should be avoided?
While a rash of news stories in 2015 claimed that men’s beards did contain a shocking amount of faeces – including one with the headline “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet”. Fortunately the headline was better than reality.
A news story from the US had swabbed a handful of men’s beards, finding half had Enterococcus bacteria. As these are found in the intestine, it led to the sensational extrapolation that the beards contained poo.
But that’s not accurate. There’s a big difference between bacteria being present and describing it as poo. Our skin is home to a huge range of bacteria and it’s not unheard of for some of those to be bacteria also found in our gut.
In a more reputable (and published) scientific study of beards, the researchers found that beards actually reduce the likelihood that antibiotic-resistant bacteria and golden staph live on the person’s skin.
Evolution? Tough to claim
While some arguments have been made there is an evolutionary reason for the like or dislike of facial hair, that is questionable. Most research is carried out in western nations – with Australia being a particular hotbed of beard research.
That narrow selection introduces serious cultural differences – beards are seen and perceived very differently in different parts of the world.
While the researchers do try to avoid the trap of cultural bias by recruiting online, the respondents still tend to skew heavily western, with only a small proportion of respondents being from other cultures. In studies that present photographs of bearded men, the photographs are often predominantly white men as well.
All up, this very western white perspective makes it difficult to claim of an evolutionary reasoning behind beard attractiveness.
(This isn’t just a beard-science problem, around 96 percent of all psychology studies come from WEIRD nations – Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic).
And when it comes to attractiveness, this doesn’t even cover other variations of sexuality and attractiveness. Do beards attract other beards, or do they repel like same-charged particles?
So guys – do whatever the heck you want with your face. It’s yours after all – some people will like it and some won’t, and that’s completely fine. You’ll look magnificent anyway.
Author’s declared conflict of interest: Ben has a beard.
This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.
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