Home / Beauty Tips / Beard science: an examination of the power (and hazards) of Movember | Amy Coats

Beard science: an examination of the power (and hazards) of Movember | Amy Coats

As a 27-year-old woman, I’ll probably have to wait a while before I am able to grow a beard. This Movember I was feeling a little left-out, so I did some research to try to discover what it’s like to grow and wear one, and what they’re good for.

I’ve not got particularly strong feelings for or against facial hair. It seems only fair that men should have something to struggle with keeping at bay, or with which to indulge in a little vanity. But I do love Movember. It tickles me to see the faces of friends and colleagues transform, at various rates and in varying degrees, into hairy yet straight-faced beasts.

It’s also a brilliant men’s health movement that has raised over £400 million in 12 years, and funded over 1000 public health initiatives on prostate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity.

And from a scientific perspective, it seems that scientists and historians have long been stroking their chins to figure out the exact cultural and scientific significance of beards.

Despite ridiculous headlines beards are not full of poo. Better still, they could even help you find a mate.

And not only can beards trap allergens, provide UV protection, and keep you toasty, they could even give the impression of being a highly employable hard-worker, even if you’re not.

A beard hair day. Why not try wearing a beard to give the impression of being a hard worker? Photograph: LA Coats/lacoatsart.com

You might like to think of the beard as a kind of office-worker’s haka. Several authors, including Charles Darwin, have suggested that secondary sexual adornments such as a shaggy beard have evolved as “psychological weapons” to threaten or intimidate rivals or predators.

Beards have long been used as to disguise illness or criminal activity, and as a tool for social mobility. Dr Jessica P Clark, assistant professor of history at Brock University, California, writes about “criminals who manipulated their facial hair to avoid identification.” Men have also used beards and moustaches to “move between social classes or disguise scars and other signs of ill health. In this way, facial hair could function as a tool of transformation, refashioning men into new, unrecognizable forms.”

Physicians used to recommend growing a beard to hide surgical scars or incurable illness. “In the late 19th century, facial hair was a viable means of concealing tumours and other scars, boils, and bumps”, Clark writes. Surgeon Jonathan Hutchinson suggested, in his 1906 BMJ paper on cancer of the lower lip, that scars could be “easily hidden by the growth of a beard.”

Thirty five years earlier, one Lawson Tait FRCS wrote of suppurating glands in the neck that, following surgery, it could be considered “a great triumph if the patient be a boy”, because the ensuing scar – the “ever present slur” – could well be “in possible reach of his beard”, and therefore be hidden.

But not even the thickest of beards could mask all ravages of illness. In the 1880s Mr B. of Bath used a beard to conceal his large neck tumour. However, the swelling began to exceed the coverage of even his impressive beard, and in 1889, Mr B resorted to surgery.

“Side view of neck tumour protruding beyond beard coverage.” Illustration from the British Medical Journal, 1890;1(1538):1419–1425.

There is of course a flip side to all of this. Researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia, suggested that, in a process termed negative frequency-dependent selection, the more beards there are, the less attractive they become.

Perhaps more worryingly, a 1967 paper entitled ‘Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men’ reports findings from a study into whether a bearded man puts his family and friends at risk of infection if his beard is contaminated by infectious microorganisms while working in a microbiological laboratory. Fortunately, the paper finds nothing of real substance. But I’m delighted it was published, if not just for its mysterious figures.

As I’m unable to grow a fake beard, should I perhaps invest in a fake one? Sadly, as Dr Clark observes, this won’t help:Across multiple cases of facial hair as disguise, a common theme emerges; beards were only effective disguises if they appeared ‘natural’”.

It might even make things worse. As in the case of Mr B,

“poorly executed or malformed beards attracted the very attention that their wearers hoped to deflect. In this way, the transformative possibilities of facial hair only existed if beards conformed to dominant Victorian fashions in male grooming.”

In other words, science and history both point to the need for good execution, in line with fashion, if a beard grower or groomer is to flaunt their fur effectively.

So whether you’re trying to disguise yourself as a motivated worker, a fierce opponent, marriage material, or simply a healthy, handsome, innocent man, make sure you’re prepared to give it a little genuine effort before you chuck out your razor and coax your dangle-swaggler into luscious, hirsute life.

@amycoats is, for now, a beardless writer. Mo or no mo, you can still support the men’s health movement at movember.com/donate.

About Fashion Brief