Apparently today’s science news is that men’s beards are gross and full of poop. I guess I’ll skip straight to the good news for beard fans, which is that you can safely ignore everything about this news story. I mean, if a beard is stinky, then definitely wash it; that’s sort of obvious, yeah? But do not go running off to shave because OMG BACTERIA.
First of all, contrary to what some of the articles are saying, this wasn’t a “study” unless by “study” you mean “a scientist swabbed stuff, just like my 9th grade Biology class did, and then looked to see what sorts of disgusting things grew in the petri dish.” (My very dim recollection is that we concluded that high school drinking fountains are grosser than high school toilets, but this was a really long time ago.) This experiment was part of a series done by an Albuquerque TV news team where they swab things and then have their microbiologist friend (John Golobic, who works for Quest Diagnostics) culture it and gross them out with the results. Previous gross-out segments have included the germ-ridden horrors of elevator buttons (staph bacteria was present on every keypad tested!), restroom door handles, the cutting board in your kitchen, and cell phones, tablets, and e-readers. Despite their claim that they had never ever seen anything as disgusting as the bacteria in the beards they seem to say something similar in pretty much everyone of these segments.
The funniest germ-ridden horror, by the way (I really don’t know how this one failed to go viral): little boys. The KOAT stuff-swabbing team went to a Montessori elementary school in February and swabbed the children. “A majority of the students were mostly clean,” they reported, “but the people who had a lot of bacteria on their hands were all boys.”
Here’s the thing: bacteria are literally all around us. You could swab the inside of your own mouth and grow a petri dish of truly disgusting crap, and yet there you are, walking around every day with all that crap swimming around in your mouth at all times and it’s not making you sick. So yeah: if you swab people’s beards, you’ll find stuff. You’ll find stuff on almost anything that’s not the inside of a bottle of bleach. Do you need to be worried? Should you take up bleaching things as your next hobby? If you or someone in your household has a severely compromised immune system, then possibly, and in fact you’ve probably already been given all sorts of recommendations for cleaning things you don’t normally think about. Other than that: no. Don’t worry about it.
You already know the normal precautions: wash your hands, don’t pick your nose, cover your coughs and sneezes with your elbow, get a flu shot. Beyond that, you should also accept that you will get sick occasionally despite normal precautions – but so do the people who bleach their steering wheels and sanitize their cell phones and car keys. No matter what you do, you’ll probably occasionally catch colds and pick up the occasional stomach bug. Despite your best efforts you could even be one of the unlucky handful who gets e. coli or salmonella from a spinach salad.
Are you going to get sick from kissing your partner who has a beard?
First of all, calling enteric bacteria “the types of things you’d find in feces” is accurate but misleading. Enteric bacteria are bacteria found in your digestive system. This category includes lactobacillus – you know, the stuff they use to make yogurt. The bacteria identified in the segment, the microbiologist added, was harmless and wouldn’t make anyone sick.
Second of all, if your partner’s beard has enteric bacteria in it, it’s probably your enteric bacteria (unless he has multiple partners). I mean, think about where that beard might have been in order to pick those bacteria up. He’d need to be awfully flexible to get them out of his own ass, but depending on your relationship, it might have been in the neighborhood of yours. Frankly, if his hygiene is poor enough that those bacteria made it into his beard from the back end of his digestive tract, really the beard is the absolute least of his and your problems. It is possible in various ways to get sick off the bacteria living in your own body (like getting a UTI if you wipe from back to front, or re-infecting yourself with strep) but as a general thing, the stuff that lives in your body is likely to be stuff your body already knows how to deal with.
Finally, most of the beards had the sort of things you’d find on any other surface. Trust me: if the KOAT news team had found anything in men’s beards that was actually going to make you sick, they’d have mentioned it.