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Still getting the heebie-jeebies over the viral 2015 experiment claiming that beards contain more fecal matter and bacteria than toilet seats?

You may not have quite as much cause for concern as you imagine. That “study,” according to Snopes, wasn’t a true research study. It had more to do with sensational headlines than science.

Yes, beards can hold bacteria, but so can clean-shaven skin. Plus, not all bacteria pose a threat to your health.

Just as you wash the skin on your face, hands, or butt to keep it clean and free of harmful bacteria, you’ll also want to practice good hygiene by keeping your beard clean.

Read on to learn more about how dirty beards can get, plus get a few tips on good beard hygiene.

The infamous 2015 “study” claimed beards are dirtier than toilets. Another small study published in 2018 suggested beards were dirtier than dogs.

But don’t get out the clippers just yet.

A 2014 study analyzed samples from 409 hospital workers, divided into two groups based on their facial hair. Those in the facial hair group, most of whom had beards, were less likely to harbor bacteria than their clean-shaven counterparts.

Researchers suggested the reason could be micro-trauma to the skin caused by shaving. Tiny abrasions in the skin that happen when you shave can hold and grow bacteria, which can potentially lead to infection.

What does all this mean? In a nutshell, no significant evidence suggests beards are inherently dirty.

Beards are as dirty as you let them get

Like any other surface or body part, a beard can harbor dirt and bacteria without regular cleaning. The longer your beard goes without washing, the dirtier it will eventually become.

Practicing good hygiene, like handwashing and regular beard washing, can help keep your beard clean and healthy.

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A dirty beard can make you sick if bacteria thriving in your beard, like Staphylococcus and Enterococcus, enter the bloodstream through a cut or other opening, explains Dr. Anna Chacon, a board certified dermatologist.

To put it simply, you likely won’t get sick from simply sporting a dirty beard, or nuzzling in close to one.

Letting your beard get dirty isn’t a good idea, of course. All the same, you encounter bacteria all day long. Even potentially harmful strains won’t make you sick unless they manage to find their way into your body.

For this reason, Chacon recommends periodically checking your skin for hidden cuts and sores that can provide a way in for bacteria. She also recommends practicing good hand hygiene, which can, of course, limit the spread of germs and reduce the risk of infection.

Most people touch their face pretty often. According to one 2015 study, people touch their face around 23 times every hour.

While no research specifically explores how often people get handsy with their beards, researchers did find that people most frequently touch their hair, cheeks, mouth, and chin — all spots near your beard zone.

Does a beard increase COVID-19 risk?

A beard may not directly increase your risk of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, or any other virus, for that matter. But your beard can make any mask you wear less effective, reducing your protection from the coronavirus.

Research from 2020 suggests that facial hair can affect respirator fit. The more facial hair you have, the less adequate the fit. Without a proper seal, respiration protection decreases.

This doesn’t just make you more susceptible to viruses, either. It can also leave you vulnerable to harmful gasses, particles, and vapors, which is something to keep in mind if you work in a profession that requires you to wear a tight-fitting respirator.

Whether you’re rocking a tidy goatee or a long, bushy beard, the cleanliness of your facial hair matters — for aesthetic reasons as well as health reasons.

Sweat, pollutants like dust and pollen, and food can easily build up on your beard, making it look and even smell not so great. And that’s before you consider the potential health impact of a dirty beard.

We’ve already touched on the potential for infection if bacteria find their way into your bloodstream via an opening on the skin. But remember, too, when you don’t wash your beard, the skin underneath doesn’t get clean, either. Over time, this can cause:

Any of the above can increase the likelihood of breaks in the skin.

Not sure how to start when it comes to keeping your beard clean?

Chacon recommends washing your beard two to three times per week with shampoo and regularly using a wide-tooth comb. Don’t forget to check your skin now and again for cuts and sores.

A few other beard care tips to consider:

  • Choose a gentle beard shampoo or cleanser designed for your skin type.
  • Wash your beard more often, even daily, if you sweat a lot or come in contact with dirt or other contaminants.
  • Moisturize your beard to soften the hair so it’s less likely to irritate your skin.
  • Change your razor blade regularly. Aim to replace the blade every five to seven shaves.
  • Keep your grooming tools in good working order by cleaning, drying, and storing them properly. Follow any directions provided by the manufacturer.

Find more do’s and don’ts for maintaining your beard here.

No, your beard probably isn’t as dirty as your toilet seat. Even so, it never hurts to put some dedicated effort into keeping it clean.

Regular washing and brushing don’t just help keep your beard looking and smelling fresh. They also go a long way toward preventing the buildup of dirt and germs.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.