Something In The Hair. Are There Bugs In The Attic?

We’ve combed the records for some remarkable truths about hair and bacteria.

How long do you think it would take the average person to count every single hair on their head?

Well, provided they took no bathroom breaks and didn’t sleep, it ought to take between a day and a day-and-a-half.

You see, the average human head has somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 individual hairs sprouting out of it.

So, seeing as we’re all about bacteria here at uBiome, what’s the picture when it comes to hair and microbes?

As ever, stand by for a fascinating meander through the world of what you might term the “cranial microbiome.”

By the way, when we just checked this admittedly made-up phrase in Google, there were no exact matches.

This post may change that.

Let’s start by acknowledging that it’s possible, but unpleasant, to suffer from bacterial infections of the hair follicles, the follicle being the sticky base of a hair—something like a tulip’s bulb, only a bit smaller, hopefully.

A skin condition known as folliculitis is a superficial infection of single follicles that form tiny pustules, generally healing without scarring.

Folliculitis can result from unhygienic depilation, so be sure to keep things clean if you’re shaving, waxing, or plucking.

Probably be sure to keep the bathroom door closed if there are other people around, too.

A more serious follicle infection due to bacteria is known as furunculosis, which leads to deeper infections, often forming what we commonly call boils.

I know, not nice.

Let’s therefore move swiftly on to hairspray, an idea said to originate from Japanese women using lacquer—yup, what we might now call varnish—to keep their hairdos in place.

Curiously, it was Japanese scientists who discovered a completely new bacterial species lurking in hairspray, of all places, back in 2008.

They named this new species Microbacterium hatanosis.

The “hat” in hatanosis, by the way, had nothing to do with heads, but was in honor of the eminent microbiologist Dr Kazunori Hatano.

It’s not clear from the Japanese scientists’ paper whether this contamination was a one-off, or something ongoing, but the new species was sufficiently noteworthy to make it into “Bergey’s Manual Of Systematic Bacteriology,” a weighty tome that many consider the bible of microbiology.

While we’re on the subject of hairstyling, let’s check out brushes.

Researchers at the University of Arizona were asked by an antimicrobial technology company to check the well-used hairbrushes of thirty women aged 18 to 24, for bacteria.

Each brush was placed in a sterile bag with 100 ml of peptone phosphate buffer, then massaged in order to transfer whatever was on the surface of the brush into the liquid.

When small samples of this fluid were analysed, this experiment’s results showed that a hairbrush can contain a higher level of bacterial colony forming units per square inch than a bathroom sink plughole, or a pet feeding bowl.

The researchers suggested that the tangled forest of hair found in the bristles of a hairbrush, combined with the remains of styling products, creates the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive.

Of course hair on the head isn’t necessarily confined to its crown.

Beards are back in fashion, so what’s the picture with facial hair and bacteria?

Is a hipster’s beard a breeding place for bugs?

Back in 1967, a microbiologist with the U.S. Army, Manuel Barbeito, conducted some remarkable experiments reported in a paper entitled “Microbiological Laboratory Hazard Of Bearded Men.”

He aimed to see if bearded lab technicians could inadvertently carry home infectious microorganisms, potentially infecting their friends and family.

Dr Barbeito’s team sprayed the beards of four volunteers with bacteria (fortunately non-infective) then tested them some time later, before and after the men had showered.

The results?

Even after washing thoroughly with soap and water, the volunteers’ beards did indeed retain microorganisms.

Actually, Dr Barbeito’s team went to even further—and somewhat bizarre—lengths to investigate buggy beards, fitting a dummy head with a bacteria-covered beard made of natural hair, which they then brushed with live baby chicks in order to see what transferred.

I know, sounds extraordinary. But this was the Sixties.

Perhaps even more way out was one of the experts who advised Dr Barbeito’s team.

You had to read right to the very end of the paper to discover his acknowledgement.

His name?

C. Beard.


Further reading

Facts about the number 100,000

How many hairs are there on the human head?

Microbacterium hatanonis sp. nov., isolated as a contaminant of hairspray

Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men

Microbiological Laboratory Hazard of Bearded Men

New Species Of Bacteria Contaminates Hairspray

Your hair is full of germs