You’re busily growing your magnificent beard, when suddenly it screeches to a halt. Stop panicking and put down the scissors – chances are the problem is something you can easily fix.
Don’t be scared – taking care of your facial hair and beard with beard specific product is the most manly thing you can do. Hair care can seem intimidating with the plethora of balms, oils, lotions and creams available, but how you look after your beard and what products you use can really affect the way it grows. By following some simple guidelines, you’ll be looking like a bear-wrestling pinnacle of masculine virility in no time.
Beards grow between ½” and ¾” per month, and can be expected to shed around thirty hairs per day. You can’t really make your hair grow faster, but by taking care of the growth you have, you’ll lose less hair from shedding and breakage. Split and dry ends are the most common issues with beard hair – and when they snap off, it can seem like your beard growth has completely stopped.
Can your beard grow forever? Probably not. Most people’s hair is limited to a certain terminal length. As part of the natural growth cycle of hair, an old follicle will shed to make way for a new hair. How long your hair and beard can grow depends not only on how well you care for them but how long your growing cycle lasts – usually between two and six years.
Unfortunately, you can’t change this cycle – it’s determined by your DNA. What you can do is give your beard the chance to grow its best.
In order to achieve the growth you want, there are two main things to consider for a thriving face-mane.
Your skin contains thousands of follicles and glands – the structures responsible for growing hair and maintaining your skin’s natural oils. No matter how thick your beard is, it’s important to keep the skin underneath it clean and in good condition. Healthy skin means healthy follicles – which makes for a happy beard.
Hair follicles are made up of several structures which work together to form your hair strands. The bulb is at the base of the follicle. It contains the stem cells that divide and grow to build hair, as well as repairing the skin when it’s damaged.
The sebaceous glands are responsible for the oils that protect your skin and hair. Sometimes, they make too much of this waxy substance called sebum. This leads to blocked follicles, overly oily skin and acne, which is prone to infection. Speaking of infections, did you know you have a whole team of helpful bacteria living on (and in) your body? It’s your natural flora, and it’s really important. Its main job is to protect your skin from unwelcome bacteria which cause infections, and your beard free of contaminating germs.
Dry, flaky, or inflamed skin, known as eczema, is harder to treat. It occurs without a clear cause, and the best treatment is moisturizer. Severe cases can require steroid cream. Itching your face is not only impolite, flaky and gross, it can really damage your hair strands.
Stress, hormones, and nutrition can also contribute to acne, eczema, or dry skin. Make sure you’re getting a healthy, well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, and minimising your stress levels.
Cleaning your skin every day removes dirt, excess sebum and dead skin cells, and encourages blood flow, energising your follicles. You need to choose a product which is gentle and moisturising, without chemicals that will strip all the oils, or dry out your beard. Stay away from exfoliant scrubs – your beard hairs provide enough friction by themselves. The less vigorously you wash your beard, the less damage you’ll do.
Keep in mind, too, that any added fragrances and colors can irritate your skin. If fragrance is your thing, try to keep to products that contain essential oils. Sticking to one scent is important – so look for an unscented cleanser to go with your balm or oil.
Beard hair health
The other part of this equation is, obviously, your beard. While hair cells are not alive once they leave the follicle, keeping the hairs smooth and moisturised is really important.
Keratin is the main protein and the building blocks for hair – the same fibrous substance that makes up your fingernails. It’s structured in layers – the cuticle, cortex and medulla.
The cuticle is the outermost layer of your hair. It’s made up of shingle-like scales, which point downwards towards the tip. This is why your hair feels smooth if you stroke it from root to tip, and rough if you go the other way (don’t do this). The cuticle scales protect the inner layers of your hair when they lie flat, and allow products to penetrate when they raise – usually encouraged by water or steam, but also by chemical processes like dye. Because of this, the best time to apply beard oil or balm is when you’ve just stepped out of the shower.
The cortex is the layer which gives hair its color, texture and strength. It’s the target of beard care products and needs to be kept moisturised to keep it elastic and prevent hair breakage.
What are split ends? When your beard dries out, the cortex becomes brittle. It can split or snap – giving the illusion that your beard has stopped growing altogether. The fragments are often tiny and unnoticeable – but en masse, the effect is definitely noticeable.
Why are beard hairs thicker than those on your head? The hairs in your beard have an inner core called a medulla, making them coarse and bristly. Generally, head hairs don’t have a medulla, so they’re thinner and more flexible.
Here’s a picture of the cuticle. You can see how the healthy cuticles are flat and smooth. This is what you want the hairs in your beard to look like. I’m not saying you should go out and buy a microscope, but by caring for your beard and making sure it’s moisturised, you can make sure it’s as silky, thick and healthy as possible. Once you’ve achieved that, the sky, or should I say your belly button, is the limit!
Now that you know what makes a healthy beard, you need to keep it that way. As you can see, there’s a balance between caring for your beard and your skin. It can be hard to find products that do both.
Look for products with minimal ingredients – the best brands use natural oils and beeswax, without preservatives, fillers or synthetic waxes. You’re aiming to keep your beard moisturised and smooth, and protect it from split ends and breaking. Yes, your waxy ‘frizz free’ balm may work in the short-term, but is it really doing long term damage?
Here are nine common ingredients to avoid. Many drugstore brands have them, and sometimes you see them in high-end products. They may even be on your beard right now!
Sodium Laurel/Laureth Sulfate (SLS)
These chemicals are in nearly every cheap shampoo, soap and cleanser. They’re what makes it bubbly, which means it’s obviously cleaning properly, right? Wrong. The media’s taught us that foam = clean, but SLS is also an industrial degreaser! It’s a very effective way to remove built up wax and styling product, but it will also strip all of the oil from your beard and damage the proteins, leaving it brittle.
SLS is the number one chemical to avoid. Those sore eyes caused by shampoo? That’s SLS damaging your corneas. It also irritates your skin and body, especially if you breathe in the foam. If it can degrease an engine, it has NO business being anywhere near your beard.
BETTER OPTIONS: NATURAL COCONUT, CORN OR OLIVE OIL SOAP, CASTILE SOAP, SODIUM COCO SULFATE, SODIUM COCOAMPHOACETATE, AMMONIUM LAUREL/LAURETH SULFATE
Mineral oil (Paraffinum Liquidum, Paraffin)
Scientists agree – the oils you put on your skin should be natural and plant based; not mined from the earth! Mineral oil is a petroleum product which seals like plastic wrap. Both your skin and the beneficial bacteria that live on your skin need to breathe. Your skin needs to be able to shed sebum without trapping it under a thin layer of oil.
It also stops your cuticles from growing, which prevents any other products you put on your beard from being effective.
Also labelled paraffin or petroleum jelly, these ingredients are common in beard oils and hair pomades. They sit on the surface, weighing the hair down and it looks shiny. However, it doesn’t moisturise and prevents your hair’s ability to absorb its natural oils.
It’s really good at making your beard appear smooth and shiny on the outside, but what’s really happening? As with mineral oil, this form of silicone (commonly used as waterproofing caulk) coats and seals your hair and skin. The cortex of the hair isn’t being moisturised at all – so while your beard looks great, it’s still brittle and prone to breakage.
Because it has a tendency to block pores, it doesn’t allow your skin to breathe – causing chapped skin, rashes and acne. This irritation can lead to hair shedding – so if you have sensitive skin, definitely steer clear of dimethicone.
BETTER OPTIONS: COCONUT, OLIVE, AVOCADO, ALMOND OILS
Commonly used as a chemical solvent, isopropyl alcohol will strip your skin of oils and moisture, making it dry and flaky. It’s present in many commercially available hair products for several reasons. It evaporates quickly, so it gives the illusion that a product is soaking into your hair. It’s also used to dissolve other solid chemicals like Behentrimonium Chloride, a disinfectant and algae preventative.
It’s a chemical to avoid because of its drying properties – especially if it’s one of the first few ingredients on the label.
Formaldehyde donors – Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidinyl Urea and DMDM Hydantoin
There’s several chemicals used in body care products as preservatives that release formaldehyde when they break down. Yes, that’s right – formaldehyde, the substance used to embalm bodies. Formaldehyde messes with your immune system, irritates your lungs and skin, and can trigger allergic reactions, headaches, chest pain, dizziness and heart palpitations. It can also cause hair loss – so keep these ingredients away from your beard!
BETTER OPTIONS: NATURAL ANTIMICROBIALS LIKE VITAMIN E AND GRAPEFRUIT SEED EXTRACT, SILVER
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Propylene Glycol (PG)
A thickener that also dissolves oil and grease, PEG and PG keep products from melting or freezing in extreme temperatures. They’re also present in e-cigarette and vaping juice. Which contacts your beard when you smoke.
They’re mainly a concern for those of us with skin that’s already in bad shape – eczema, fungal issues like ringworm, and acne – or a lack of Vitamin D (also know as a lack of sunlight). They strip hair and skin of their natural moisture, and can make skin extremely flaky.
BETTER OPTIONS: BEESWAX, XANTHAN OR GUAR GUM, VEGETABLE GLYCERIN
These are extremely potent antibacterials. The most common use in body-care products is as a preservative. They can mess with your natural skin bacteria, which can lead to infections. Even though these preservatives are in very low concentrations in body-care products, they can absorb into your skin. They have also been found in breast cancer tumors (they weren’t found to cause cancer, and the study didn’t test normal tissue). Some studies have reported that they may be responsible for hormonal imbalances that can result in hair loss.
Preservatives are really important in body-care products, however. Moist, room temperature substances that you dip your fingers in are breeding grounds for bacteria and fungus. Because of this, and the worldwide consensus that low concentrations of parabens are safe, they rate low on this list of avoidable chemicals.
BETTER OPTIONS: GRAPEFRUIT SEED EXTRACT, VITAMIN E, SMALL PACKAGES DISPOSED OF REGULARLY.
There’s way too many chemicals in cigarette smoke to list, but here are the main ways smoking is wreaking havoc on your beard. Not only does nicotine stain your beard a rather unattractive shade of yellow, tobacco smoke causes vasoconstriction – constricting blood supply, especially to the smaller vessels. Decreasing the blood flow to your beard-growing follicles is not the way to a healthy beard. Smoking also increases your body’s levels of DHT, or dihydrotestosterone – one of the main hormones responsible for male hair loss.
It’s unlikely you’ll find products that exclude all of these ingredients.
For the most part, all you need is a traditional castile soap, like Dr. Bronners, and some natural nut or vegetable oils for moisturising your beard. They’ll clean your skin and give you shine without an oily buildup. You also know they’re penetrating your beard where they’re needed most.
Whether you’re shopping for beard products, or you already have a favorite brand, check them out for these ingredients. It’s easy to keep your beard and skin healthy and grow yourself a magnificent set of whiskers. Simply avoid these eight toxic chemicals.
Let us know if you have any questions about your choice of products; beard or skin care. What other chemicals do you think we should add to this list? What experience do you have with harsh chemicals in the products you use?