When looking for a long-term partner, women tend to be more concerned with a man’s personality and character than his appearance, but a new study suggests that there may be one physical trait that females do take into consideration when looking for a serious partner: His facial hair. According to the research, beards may act as a sign of potential traits such as enhanced fertility and survival ability.

For the study, now published online in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, female volunteers judged stubble as the most attractive facial hairstyle and reported preferring men with stubble over men with a full beard when looking for a short-term relationship. However, the women judged full beards as being more attractive for long-term relationships. Faces that had been digitally altered to look either extremely masculine or extremely feminine were judged as being least attractive, regardless of any type of relationship context. These results suggest that beardedness may be a sign of masculine formidability and the potential to provide direct benefits to females.

To obtain this data, the team had 8,520 women look at images of male faces that had been digitally altered to express different types of facial hair: clean-shaven, light stubble, and full beards. The faces were also altered to look hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine.

In addition, the findings also suggest that sexual selection via female choice “has shaped the evolution of male ornamentation in many species,” even our own, the study authors explained, as reported in a recent statement.

Growing a beard may not only help men get a date or even a wife, it could also help to protect them from bacteria and infection. For a 2016 study, researchers swabbed the faces of 408 men and found that clean-shaven men were three times more likely to carry harmful bacteria, such as MRSA, than men who had beards.

The researchers suspect this may be due to the “microtrauma” men experience when they shave, and that the repeated abrasions that occur day after day help bacterial colonies grow and spread on the skin. However, another theory suggests that bearded men have less harmful bacteria because beard hair helps to grow healthy microbes that in turn fight off more dangerous bacteria.

Source: Dixson BJW, Sulikowski D, Gouda-Vossos A, Rantala MJ, Brooks RC. The masculinity paradox: facial masculinity and beardedness interact to determine women's ratings of men's facial attractiveness. Journal of Evolutionary Biology . 2016

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