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Hold the shave: Beard may protect against the sun

A beard and bushy mustache is the preferred look of Hollywood hunks, hipsters and lumberjacks. They may also protect a man’s face from some of the ravages of the sun.
/ Source: NBC News

Maybe Ben Affleck shouldn't have shaved his burly beard after winning the Oscar for "Argo." A beard and bushy mustache is the preferred look of Hollywood hunks, hipsters and lumberjacks. They may also protect a man’s face from some of the ravages of the sun.

Researchers in Australia – the continent with the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world – looked at how much UV protection men’s facial hair offered and found that it actually did help -- a little.

For a man with full-on facial scruff the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) can range from 2 to 21 out of a max of UPF 50, according to Alfio Parisi, a professor of radiation physics at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, Australia. “This is a reduction in the UV of 50 to 95 percent,” he says. As a comparison, the sun protection factor (SPF) provided by correctly applied sunscreen is about 30.

Parisi and his team tested for erythemal or “sunburning UV” which has been linked to increased of non-melanoma skin cancer.

“This has a higher effectiveness in the UVB and it extends with a much lower effectiveness into the UVA,” he says. Exposure to UVA is linked to skin cancer and aging, while exposure to UVB is associated with burning.

The research involved three mannequin heads. Tiny ultraviolet “dosimeters” (instruments that measure the amount of X-rays or radiation absorbed in a given period) were attached to the mannequins’ faces in several spots: the upper lip, upper jaw, middle jaw, lower jaw and chin. Then the mannequins were given beards.

One was decked out with a big beard (let’s call it the ); one was given a shorter beard (think ). The third “control” mannequin () remained clean-shaven.

The three heads were then mounted on a rotating platform and placed outside on the campus of the University of Southern Queensland. Measurements of ultraviolet radiation were taken on each facial site after an hour’s exposure. Data was gathered over the course of a year.

Results showed that facial hair did reduce the amount of ultraviolet radiation exposure to the “skin” under the beards and mustaches, although the protection depended on the length and density of the facial hair, the angle of the sun in the sky and the “facial site” (the upper lip, for instance, received the highest exposure to ultraviolet rays).

The study doesn’t mean hirsute types can skimp on the sunscreen.

“Although there is protection provided by beards and moustaches, the presence of facial hair should not be taken as a reason to spend extended periods of time in sunlight,”Parisi says.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical offer for the American Cancer Society says the study – with its bearded mannequins mounted on what appears to be the world’s strangest merry-go-round -- may sound funny, but it’s actually quite important.

“There’s a very real question being raised here,” he says. “People do ask this question a lot and this is providing an answer. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t show that facial hair has much benefit. There’s some protection offered by facial hair but it’s not significant.”

From Pitt to Clooney, McConaughey to Galifianakis, many actors have shunned the razor to grow bushy or neatly-trimmed beards. Here are some of the most famous.

If anything, Lichtenfeld says the study confirms that hair – whether it’s on your face or your head – is not really an effective sunscreen.

“If you go outside to mow the lawn and you don’t have protection, you can get burned very quickly on the scalp, even with a full head of hair,” he says. “Don’t believe that because you have hair on your head, you’re protecting yourself from the potential impact of ultraviolet radiation. You can still develop sunburn and even skin cancers later in life.”

According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, with melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer – accounting for more than 75,000 skin cancer cases and 9,000 skin cancer deaths in 2012. “Unprotected and/or excessive exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight or tanning booths” as the number one risk factor for skin cancer, the ACS website says.

Bald guys -- or those rocking a -- need to be particularly careful when it comes to the sun’s rays, says Lichtenfeld.

“They definitely need to be concerned,” he says. “They need to be cautious. People tend to forget the scalp is at risk.”

Both Lichtenfeld and Parisi recommend the use of sunscreen on any exposed skin. 

Lichtenfeld also suggests a much healthier -- albeit a little less manly --  trend than a big burly beard for outdoorsy types: a wide-brimmed hat.

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