Ditch the rash, grow a tash

Dermatologists say facial hair can be beneficial. Champion beard wearer Armin Bielefeldt would likely agree. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

Dermatologists say facial hair can be beneficial. Champion beard wearer Armin Bielefeldt would likely agree. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

A moustache maketh the man? Movember co-founder Justin CoghlanJC for short – reckons so. "I have seen it bring on a great new persona in guys so many times," he says. "It's almost like Clark Kent turning into Superman."

JC, an Australian who helped 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?

Research from Australia suggests there is 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 April in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour 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 could be that facial hair may indicate a better immune system.

In a paper published by Dixson and Paul Vasey in 2012 in Behavioural Ecology, the authors point to a connection between beards and immunity. Because "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 tangible health benefits?

Yes, say scientists at the University of Southern Queensland. They claim beards can help 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 Professor Alfio Parisi, a member of the team that conducted the study in the scorching Australian outback, admits that a hairy face's effectiveness against the dangerous, cancer-causing UVA is "much lower".

Dr Bav Shergill of the British Association of Dermatologists warns against growing a beard as a substitute for sun protection, but admits 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, Shergill says. "I would encourage those patients to grow a beard. They can then close-crop it without scraping their skin, which leads to inflammation of the hair follicles."

Without proper maintenance and care, though, even the most carefully trimmed beard or twizzled moustache can be detrimental to health.

Dr Sunil Chopra of the London Dermatology Centre gives little credence to health benefit claims, insisting there is actually more chance of infection with a beard. Facial hair is more likely to trap bacteria and food.

A well-kept beard can prevent the common bacterial infections men get from shaving. But, says Dr Bram Brons of healthexpress.co.uk, 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 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 remain up for debate, growing a "mo" this month could save another man's life. In a survey of more than 1 200 Movember participants last year, 67% recommended that someone else see a doctor as a result of the campaign; 43% became more aware of health issues. That's worth chucking the razor for. – © Guardian News & Media 2013



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