Why Do Some Men Grow Big Beards?

erfer2Its 2016, and beards have become ubiquitous. Forcing hundreds of hairs out of the bottom of your face has almost become a prerequisite in hip cities like Brooklyn, Portland, or San Francisco.

But that’s not really fair to everyone who isn’t like me, and physically can’t grow a full or thick beard. As pre-pubescent boys, we lived to hope that one day we’d be able to rock a giant face warmer.

We were even counterintuitively told to shave, so that the hair would come in faster and thicker. There are a lot of obvious reasons that’s not in any way true, but we still optimistically did it. Sadly, the fact is, not everyone can grow a beard, and even those that can have varying levels of success.

So, is there some trick, or medication, or just a dang explanation to make up for the beard variety?

Your first inclination may be to say, “Well, it’s testosterone and men with more testosterone grow better beards”. But that’s not quite right. Testosterone is part of a group of hormones called androgens, which regulate sexual development. Specifically, testosterone regulates, among a ton of other things, what we call, “male secondary sex characteristics”. That covers physical attributes usually associated with men, but which are not directly involved in reproduction.

Sure, beards are sexy, but you don’t have sex with them. So, testosterone is the reason men (and some women) have facial hair, more muscle mass, deeper voices and so on. But that’s NOT the reason some men can’t grow beards. Here’s the tricky part: testosterone levels on their own don’t predict hair growth; in fact, the chemical you’re really looking for is called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which is basically a super potent form of testosterone that induces both beard growth and also… hair loss.

And the trickier thing?

Whether or not you can grow a beard, and whether or not your hair falls out, is determined almost entirely by the number of androgen receptors in the upper layer of your skin. The more androgen receptors you have, the more DHT will bind to them, and more hair will appear on the lower half of your head, and less on the upper half.

The reason that the same chemical causes exactly opposite results is because there is different gene expression based on the different types of hair follicles. Unfortunately for my beardless or balding buddies, the number of androgen receptors you have seems to be ultimately decided by genetics. And while there are medications that can lower the amount of DHT in your body, which is how some people fight male-pattern baldness, there is little you can do to boost your number of androgen receptors to the point where you turn a baby-face into a lumberjack.

That’s not to say you can’t increase them, studies show it is possible, it is just unlikely to have a serious effect on beard growth. But of course, there are exceptions. Men with plenty of androgen receptors and DHT can end up developing alopecia areata, a skin disease that attacks hair follicles, and results in large bald patches on the beard or scalp. Luckily, it’s treatable.

There are also some women who are able to growth dark, thick facial hair as a result of a condition called “hirsutism”. Just as in men, this can occur if the woman has too many androgen receptors along with higher levels of testosterone, which women already naturally produce in small amounts.

And female facial hair is not uncommon; roughly 5% of women in the US have hirsutism. But in the end, I’m sorry to say, if you’re a man in your 20s, and you’re still struggling to complete the lumber look, then you’ll likely be struggling for the rest of your life.

At least be happy that you probably won’t go bald anytime soon. And for those of you who are both scraggly AND balding, my deepest condolences. Write your parent’s genetics a strongly, strongly worded letter.

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