Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Beards and Staches and Sideburns, Oh My! The Luxuriant Science of Facial Hair

Each year men around the world take up their razors against a sea of stubble to participate in what has become an incredible demonstration of crowdsourcing and teamwork. These men grow mustaches and raise tens of millions of dollars for prostate cancer research. The world has come to know this event as Movember.

As noble a cause as Movember may seem, it does have one unfortunate side effect. Try as they might, some “Mo Bros” will inevitably fall short of their facial hair goals, even if their donations do not reflect this. As a service to the follicley-challenged, we at Sketchy Science thought we would attempt to explain why some men will end up looking more like Matthew Broderick than Magnum P.I. come the end of the month.

Facial hair is a product of hormones and genetics. Testosterone is the primary culprit in terms of facial, chest, and all other body hair in both men and women. The level of testosterone in your body is dependent on a number of things including biology, and environmental factors. As we saw in our discussion of epigenetics, even the lives of your recent ancestors might impact your DNA and subsequently alter your ability to grow a mo. Diet also plays a key role with zinc and magnesium needed to get the testosterone manufacturing process started and cholesterol needed to produce the actual hormone. Foods like eggs, spinach, nuts, avocados, and balsamic vinegar are all fine choices if your want to improve your follicle fecundity. Others like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage will help by lowering levels of counteracting hormones like estrogen.

Testosterone acts like a messenger from your body to your hair follicles. In the simplest possible terms, testosterone antagonizes the follicle and tells it to grow, grow, grow. It physically changes the “peach fuzz” many of us are born with, making it thicker, coarser, and darker. From there, you’re off to the races.

Unfortunately, you may be stuck in the gate if your genetics don’t cooperate. Studies have revealed that Testosterone isn’t the sole factor involved in facial hair growth. Research involving Japanese men (a group that is generally less able to grow facial hair) has shown that even men with little to no visible facial hair can have levels of testosterone equal to or in excess of their bearded brethren. The explanation lies in a person’s genetics. Testosterone can yell at your hair follicles to grow until it’s throat is sore but if your DNA doesn’t allow you to respond, you will remain baby-faced. Genetics help determine what is called your testosterone sensitivity. High testosterone sensitivity is not without its drawbacks, however. It has been linked to male pattern baldness in addition to facial hair growth, possibly explaining why Bruce Willis is considered a manly action-hero.

Recent research has also shown that, beyond being a good tool for fundraising, a certain amount of facial hair might also help you attract a mate (at least if you’re Caucasian). A team of Australian biologists evaluated ratings of attractiveness and masculinity for men with no facial hair, light stubble, heavy stubble, and full beards. Results indicated that heavy stubble was the most attractive condition, with full beard, light stubble, and clean shaven being less attractive. Men with full beards were rated highest in terms of masculinity. The researchers suggest that facial hair might serve as a signal regarding reproductive health and the ability of a man to protect his family. It needs to be noted, however that all the men being evaluated were of European descent as well has 80% of the women who did the evaluating. Attractiveness ratings were also impacted by the stage of the woman evaluator's  reproductive cycle, supporting the evolutionary explanation offered by the researchers.

Whether or not you can grow a beard Karl Marx would be jealous of, Movember represents a great cause. It is important to remember that the quality of one’s facial hair is far less important than the quality of one’s intentions. Cancer research is a good and noble thing and we at Sketchy Science wish all Mo Bros and Mo Sistas good luck in their fundraising as we close in on the end of this happily hairy month.

If you want to donate to this worth-while cause you can give through the mo spaces of: