Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.
Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!
If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.
To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:
That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.
Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.
Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.
Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.
Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.
If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY