Quick – which has more bugs, a man’s shaggy beard or a man’s clean-shaven face?
A man’s beard typically has more than 100 different kinds of bacteria rummaging through it. But beards are actually less likely to harbor infection-causing and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than a clean-shaven face. In fact, not having a beard actually increases your chances threefold of having methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on your face, according to a recent study.
There seems to be two reasons for this. Micro-abrasions caused by shaving – tiny cuts in the skin – are thought to better support bacterial colonization and proliferation. Second, when you get a competitive environment like a beard where there are many different bacteria, they have to fight for food resources and space, so they produce their own antibiotics in order to kill off the competition – i.e., other bugs.
So how do we get these critters off of our freshly-shaved faces? We know that good hygiene is the best way to shed bugs and prevent the spread of bacterial infections, so we will want to wash our face with the new-age antibacterial soaps. After all, our grandparents used just regular soap and water and surely we’ve come a long way since then.
Well, not so fast, because studies are saying that our grandparents had it right: so ditch the antibacterial soaps and disinfectants and get back to good old-fashioned soap and water. The reason is that soap and water clean by loosening and lifting dirt, oil, and microbes from surfaces so they can be easily rinsed away with water.
Antibacterial products, on the other hand, leave surface residues – bugs. But not the usual ones. The ones left over – the survivors — constitute a small subpopulation of the original group. And they survived because they were armed with special defense mechanisms. These guys then reproduce as their weaker relatives perish, until they fill all the space previously occupied by the now dead bugs. And that’s how you end up with a face full, or a countertop full, of antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA.
Scientists have identified two antibacterial agents in particular that they think select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria – triclosan and triclocaraban: so you want to stay away from any product that contains either one.
Stuart Levy, MD, of the Tufts University School of Medicine and author of The Antibiotic Paradox, sums it up this way: That antibacterial soaps and disinfectants select for bacteria that survive their onslaught illustrates yet another counterintuitive proposition: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”