Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The beard chronicles, or facial hair and other atrocities of nature

I still remember when my first facial hair began to appear, and it was a terrible disappointment.

Under my chin, a hair appeared and soon was about three-quarters of an inch long. It was a terrible embarrassment, and I remember how happy I was when my father showed me how to shave, and how relieved I was when a stroke removed that scraggly bit of hair, along with the incipient beard that I was beginning to believe I had.

When it comes to beards, men are the original optimists. They fantasize about luxurious carpets of dark hair across their faces that shows them to be distinguished and intelligent. By the time they finally get around to it, they get this terribly uneven mass that looks like the camouflage of a jet fighter, with areas of darkness and lightness interspersed.

Men whose beards come in gray are called “graybeards,” and such growths are a sign of advanced age and probably irascibility.

For example, I was watching the movie “Moonrise Kingdom” recently and saw actor Bob Balaban, who plays the resident of an island who is also a sort of narrator of the movie and an island historian. He’s a comic figure with his gray chin-beard. Compare that role to his roles in such films as “2010” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when he was much younger and his beard was totally black. He looked like an intellectual in those films, not a figure of whimsy.

I am currently growing a beard, the outgrowth of an incident where I cut myself on the chin shaving and began showing up for work with Band-Aids on my chin from repeatedly opening the wound. I finally decided to hell with it and gave up shaving, then continued to shave my neck.

What I have now is terrifying, a mixture of gray with a little black thrown in. It reminds me of the old MAD magazine strip in which a man is told by a young woman that the beard makes him look so smart. So distinguished. So old. “I’ll shave it off tomorrow,” he says in the last panel.

I sometimes joke that my beard is a sign of religious conversion to Islam, but of course that’s not true. It is true that the first sign that young men are radicalized into an extreme form of Islam is that they stop shaving and try to grow a beard, but as I said mine is just an effort to stop cutting my face and stop the bleeding.

The first time someone noticed I was growing a beard was, oddly enough, when I was trying desperately not to grow one.

I had learned to shave at the hand of my father, and soon after was at Parris Island where I had to learn the Marine Corps way of doing everything. It amazed me that you could actually get something accomplished while wearing just a towel and struggling to get mirror space with 65 other guys who were also trying to shave, but there we were, and there I was.

While Sgt. Bill Bostic shouted us through our shaving – “You have exactly 45 seconds.” and soon counted down to “You’re done, you’re done. Clear the head!” – I tried to follow the instructions he had given, which involved basically taking a Trac II razor and using it to not only remove the dreaded “five o’clock shadow” that emerged overnight but also the hair that was beneath the skin.

The eradication of all hair was a Marine Corps goal in basic training, and one interesting side note is that if you look at Marine recruits early on, their faces and necks look like disaster areas from the deep shaving.

Mine certainly did.

Still, I recall that Bostic wrote on an evaluation card for me that I was “growing a beard.”

Well, it might have been that I had lightened up on the razor because the pain was getting to be a bit much and it was not fun falling out for morning chow bleeding from shaving cuts on the neck.

Some Marines’ faces never recovered. African-American Marines had an especially hard time because of an affliction called “razor bumps.”

According to the unreliable source known as Wikipedia:

“Pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) is most common on the male face, but it can also happen on other parts of the body where hair is shaved or plucked, especially areas where hair is curly and the skin is sensitive, such as genital shaving (more properly termed pseudofolliculitis pubis or PFP).

“After a hair has been shaved, it begins to grow back. Curly hair tends to curl into the skin instead of straight out the follicle, leading to an inflammation reaction. PFB can make the skin look itchy and red, and in some cases, it can even look like pimples. These inflamed papules or pustules can form especially if the area becomes infected.

“This is especially problematic for some men who have naturally coarse or tightly curling thick hair. Curly hair increases the likelihood of PFB by a factor of 50. If left untreated over time, this can cause keloid scarring in the beard area.

“Pseudofolliculitis barbae can further be divided into two types of ingrown hairs: transfollicular and extrafollicular. The extrafollicular hair is a hair that has exited the follicle and reentered the skin. The transfollicular hair never exits the follicle, but because of its naturally curly nature curls back into the follicle causing fluid build-up and irritation.”

The solution?

Again, according to Wikipedia:

“The most effective prevention is to let the beard grow. For men who are required or prefer to shave, studies show the optimal length to be about 0.5 mm to 1 mm to prevent their hair growing back into the skin. For most cases, totally avoiding shaving for three to four weeks allows all lesions to subside, and most extrafollicular hairs will resolve themselves in about 10 days. Permanent removal of the hair follicle is the only definitive treatment for PFB. Electrolysis is impractical and ineffective because the needle may not reach the hair follicle. Laser-assisted hair removal is effective. There is a risk of skin discoloration and a very small risk of scarring.

“Some men use electric razors to control PFB. Those who use a razor should use a single blade or special wire-wrapped blade to avoid shaving too closely, with a new blade each shave. Shaving in the direction of hair growth every other day, rather than daily, may improve pseudofolliculitis barbae. If one must use a blade, softening the beard first with a hot, wet washcloth for five minutes or shave while showering in hot water can be helpful. Some use shaving powders (a kind of chemical depilatory) to avoid the irritation of using a blade. Barium sulfide-based depilatories are most effective, but produce an unpleasant smell.”

Here’s the treatment:

“The easiest cure is to let the beard grow. Existing razor bumps can often be treated by removal of the ingrown hair. Extrafollicular hairs can usually be pulled gently from under the skin, with tweezers. Complete removal of the hair from its follicle is not recommended. Severe or transfollicular hairs may require removal by a dermatologist.

“Medications are also prescribed to speed healing of the skin. Clinical trials have shown glycolic acid-based peels to be an effective and well-tolerated therapy which resulted in significantly fewer PFB lesions on the face and neck. The mechanism of action of glycolic acid is unknown, but it is hypothesized that straighter hair growth is caused by the reduction of sulfhydrylbonds in the hair shaft by glycolic acid, which results in reduced re-entry of the hair shaft into the follicular wall or epidermis. Medications containing Allantoin and Azulene have been shown to reduce swelling, redness and itchiness. Allantoin is a natural soothing skin protectant and moisturizer that increases the water content to provide structure support to skin cells. Azulene is a blue colored oil derived from flowers in the Asteraceae family and can be used to moisturize and soothe irritated skin. Salicylic acid peels are also effective. Prescription antibiotic gels (Benzamycin, Cleocin-T) or oral antibiotics are also used. Retin-A is a potent treatment that helps even out any scarring after a few months. It is added as a nightly application of Retin-A Cream 0.05 – 0.1% to the beard skin while beard is growing out.

“Exfoliating the skin before and between shaves using an ingrown hair brush or bump brush effectively frees trapped hair out and teases it away from the skin before the hair has a chance to embed itself.”

The trouble was, as I mentioned, you had to dig into the skin to get the facial hair, the very thing that caused the problem. I can still remember an African-American sergeant with his special clipper in maintenance control at the squadron, going at the hair on his neck. They even sold special clippers at the PX.

It was nearly impossible for African-American Marines to get a “no-shaving” chit, and the result often was a face and neck that was a horror. Even some white Marines had these problems. I still remember one fellow, a white corporal in administration at the naval air station in Millington, Tenn.

It was the morning after we reported to the base for school, and we were all there in our winter service alphas with our shooting badges and either one stripe on our arms or, like me, a slick-sleeved private (no ribbons were handed out back then for finishing basic training. We weren’t at war.). We were sitting in an ante-room talking and awaiting the start of business when this corporal emerged from the room beyond a pair of doors and announced, “Keep it down out here. I’m in a bad enough mood as it is.”

What silenced us was the sight of his face. He literally looked like the surface of the moon. I guess that was why he was so angry. In a way, I really felt sorry for him.

My second attempt at beard growing actually happened in 2006, when I decided to stop shaving. I have a photo of myself with astronaut Ed Mitchell of Apollo 14 fame, and I actually have a nice, dark beard. But I shaved it off.

I probably will keep this one for a few weeks longer. I don’t know. If I’m going to look like an irascible old man, I want to get a few more years under my belt.

In the meantime, it is fun to stroke my beard and feel it getting longer. And I am really just rebelling against my Marine Corps training.

Take that, Sgt. Bostic

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April 15, 2015 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , ,

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