Friday Weird Science: Don’t like your men hairy? Don’t let them in bed!

The other title of this post is “what happens when you leave a guy alone on a desert island for a few weeks”, and the other OTHER title of this post is “people who are obsessive enough to measure their body hair”.
But what, you may ask, is the real title of the PAPER? Anonymous. “Effects of sexual activity on beard growth in man.” Nature, 1970.
Historical science is often so awesome and so crazy, in so many ways. This paper comes to me courtesy of Monica at Purdue, and to her courtesy of Dr. John Anderson’s Endocrinology class (Bio 559) at Purdue. The more I see of the syllabus, the more I REALLY wish I had a) gone to Purdue, and b) taken this class. Because I think I might have been studying endocrinology today.
Aside from being some wacky science, this paper earns additional wackiness from being self-performed, as well as being a self-performed measurement of facial hair. And, considering it was a case study, he did some good controls, and kept some very good data. I’m pretty impressed.
Also, this is an example of a good quote I heard from the Nature podcast a while back. “The best discoveries happen not when you say ‘eureka’, but when you’re staring into a microscope and say ‘hey, that’s funny…'” And when you spend a lot of time alone on a desert island, you have a lot of time to notice things that are funny.

I’m not really sure what the author was doing on this desert island, as he remained anonymous, though vouched for and willing to respond to reviewer comments. My theory is that he was a researcher of some other bent than endocrinology (maybe a botanist or marine biologist or something if it involved desert islands), and that he thus remained anonymous because he was reporting findings out of his area of expertise. But he’s definitely got how to do an experiment down, though he is very limited in that he was forced to perform it on himself.
So he’s on this desert island, apparently for several weeks at a time, and apparently very lonesome for fair female company. And he began to notice differences in his facial hair. In fact, he noticed a cycle. His beard grew at a relatively slow rate while he was alone, but when he was able to see his lady friend, he noticed a sudden increase in stubble.
So how does one measure one’s facial hair growth? I’ve got this amusing image in my mind of a guy craning his neck in a mirror, trying to get the angle of the ruler just right. But no. This is another point where you could tell this guy had science on the brain. He shaved at the same time every day, and weighed the results. I wonder if he saved his samples…how would you explain that? Anyway, he noticed a clear pattern, with increases in the weight of shavings around the time he was gettin’ some action. The increase occurred only during the first day, and then dropped off to baseline levels over a period of 4-6 days.
You can see the results of 22 days of measurements above. The female symbol represents the times when the author had access to a female, while the isolation period was the island. And there’s a definitely spike there. He took several weeks of measurements, during which he only saw his girl on the weekends, to obtain a graph with some error bars. He did notice that other factors, such as tension, fatigue, and even drinking appeared to affect the amount of hair produced on a given day. But he decided to look at levels of androgens (testosterone and other closely related hormones), because he knew it was under “testicular control” (heh heh), and as…other functions, are also under testicular control, a correlation seemed likely.
So he played around on the desert island, dosing himself with hormones which he placed under his tongue. He included a round of placebos, and tested testosterone, cortisone, and androsterone. He was able to show that all of the hormones tested produced increases in beard growth, with androsterone producing the best effects (unfortunately, there’s no graph).
His findings are not really surprising in light of what we know now. There are known increases in androgens in response to sex. Not only that, men who have been separated from their significant others for some period of time will exhibit spikes in their androgen levels AND in their sperm counts when reunited with their favorite lay. Unfortunately, I don’t think studies of this kind have been done in women, and they would certainly be a good bit more difficult, as women’s hormone levels fluctuate in a cyclical rhythm which you would have to control for, as well as controlling for when they saw their mates, and you would have to test them in every stage of their cycle…yikes. Still, the outcome could be interesting.
So what was his conclusion? That hormone activity in men could be measured by simply weighing a guy’s beard shavings from one day to the next, rather than doing things like taking urine samples. A good idea. But I am thinking of more practical applications. If you like some stubble on your man, make him wait for it. It will make that 5 o’clock shadow all the better.
Anonymous (1970). Effects of sexual activity on beard growth in men Nature, 226, 869-870

21 Responses

  1. This does not bode well for some of the competitors in the great Darwin bead challenge

  2. Heh… This may explain why my boyfriend suddenly started to have significantly greater facial hair growth when we started to date in his early 20ies, and why it started to grow even more on a daily bases when we moved together. I do however have to wonder if this is why I’ve gotten significantly hairier, since allegedly to my doctor I don’t have PCOS. Amusing and interesting Friday Weird Science post, as always.

  3. A few years later an endocrinologist told me that he knew the person who wrote it and that it was a hoax, unfortunately.

  4. How does masturbation fit into this?

  5. Finally! A great explanation for why my facial hair is so thick! 🙂

  6. I’ve decided my beard isn’t bushy enough.

  7. No wonder it takes me a week to grow a 5’o’clock shadow…not that it’s even visible, anyway (blonde).
    How do you even weigh your daily facial shavings? Do you collect everything in a bag and dry it out, because otherwise how would you account for water weight? Scicurious, we need some methodology explained if you’d please.

  8. I know one of the authors of a very similar paper quite well (see if you can find it) and remember the process … Great stuff. They should uncloak.

  9. Richard: oh noes! It’s a hoax! That would make Sci very sad, as I was very amused. But it would also explain why there is no graph for the most important part of the study, where the guy dosed himself with androgens.
    Kid Panda: how DOES masturbation fit in? Someone should do that study…

  10. They told me when I was a kid that masturbation changes _where_ the hair grows.
    So, kid, wanna be a scientist?

  11. Toaster: My recollection is that he used an electric razor, emptying out the shavings every day.

  12. And my recollection is that the experimenter was supposed to be a lighthouse keeper, so his job kept him isolated much of the time.

  13. I think I recall a study that showed a rise in testosterone after sex and a drop in testosterone after masturbation. No idea where that was or if it is a good study.

  14. The sysadmin knows who I am, let’s hope he isn’t tracking what I search for in PubMed.
    Apparently, male masturbation results in an increase on only 17alpha-hydroxyprenenolone and not other androgens.
    And “>>
    apparently abstinence increases testosterone levels in males.
    Didn’t find anything from a very cursory search on post-coital levels of testosterone in men (found one for women that found some increase, I think).

  15. Interestingly, in Google Scholar, this article is attributed to B Sexual, who seems to have some very interesting collaborators, including “I Chlamydia,” “P Geriatric,” “A Spermatocidal,” “E Sex,” and “S HIV”.

  16. I will be watching my husband’s beard growth very carefully now…

  17. I wish this were true, but alas, though I have not gotten laid in quite some time, my facial hair has actually grown faster, since I started shaving.
    Maybe the masturbation does have an affect….

  18. I am conflicted as to whether we should keep this information from being known to the Abstinence Only Sex Education folks.
    “Little Johnny, why are you shaving?”

  19. Interesting. On a related note, I once heard that when a person is in love, their hair grows faster. Something about hormones relating to love. Do you know if there’s anything to that, or if it’s an urban legend?

  20. Tee hee! I love the interpretation you give of the paper! And *le gasp* I surely hope it wasn’t fabricated as Richard suggests. The “I know a dude who says he knew the dude who….” grapevine can lead to misunderstandings, sometimes. But dang it! I’d have loved to see those graphs….

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