Can’t Grow a Full Beard? There’s an Explanation for That

And it’s not about testosterone

three friends with beards laughing

From trendy stubble to neatly trimmed goatee to a lumberjack-worthy beard, the facial hair craze doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But if your beard is more wispy than robust, you might be wondering, “What gives?”

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“Just like there are differences in the shape and texture of the hair on men’s heads, the same is true of their beards,” says dermatologist John Anthony, MD. Here’s why.

When it comes to beard growth, blame (or thank) mom and dad

Your genes are one of the main factors in how thick or thin your facial hair is. “Men have hairs on their face that are programmed to respond to testosterone, and when they get that signal around puberty, they transition from fine hair to thicker hair,” Dr. Anthony explains. “But how thick it is depends on genetics.”

Genetics also affect where facial hair grows and when your beard reaches its full potential.

“From ages 18 to 30, most beards continue to develop in thickness and coarseness,” he says. “So if you’re 18 and wondering why you don’t have a full beard yet, it just may not be time.”

Ethnicity can also play a role. Dr. Anthony notes that people from Mediterranean countries, for example, tend to grow thicker beards.

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Could it be alopecia areata?

If you’d describe your beard as patchy, it could be more than genes.

Alopecia areata is a condition where hair falls out in round patches. The hair loss can happen both on your scalp and your beard. It occurs when your immune system thinks your hair follicles are the enemy. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why it happens, but stress could be a factor.

While not dangerous, alopecia areata can worsen. “It’s not predictable,” Dr. Anthony says. “It could spontaneously resolve, or it could spread if you don’t get treatment.”

There are lots of treatment options, but finding an effective one may take some trial and error. A dermatologist might recommend:

  • Creams and medication you apply to the skin.
  • Steroid injections.
  • Irritant contact therapy, where doctors apply a medication that causes an allergic reaction to the scalp, with the goal of altering the immune response and prompting hair regrowth.

Dr. Anthony’s rule of thumb? “If a change in your beard is new, unusual or asymmetrical, talk to your doctor. Start with your primary care doctor, but if there isn’t an obvious answer, see a dermatologist.”

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Other reasons for beard differences

For those beards that are more tie-dye than uniform in color (think: reddish patches when you have brown hair), it could be:

  • A birthmark: Birthmarks can change the color of your hair in the affected area.
  • Alopecia areata: Especially if the color change is new, it could be a sign you have the condition.

What isn’t responsible for a thin beard is your testosterone levels. “If you have sufficient testosterone to go through puberty and develop secondary hair in other places, then your testosterone levels are normal,” Dr. Anthony says.

Three beard-growing guidelines

While there is little research on proven ways to increase the fullness of your beard, Dr. Anthony suggests a few things that might help:

  1. Good things come to those who wait. Genetically, it takes some men’s beards longer than others to reach their full potential. “And it doesn’t happen overnight,” he reassures. “You may be close to 30 before your beard becomes what it’s going to be.”
  2. Watch what you eat. A healthy diet can help beard growth. But beware of fad diets: They may not give you the level of nutrition you need to grow beard hair normally.
  3. Just say no to hair regrowth products: Dr. Anthony cautions that even popular hair regrowth products are not FDA-approved to grow beard hair. They also have potential risks. “You can get dermatitis in the area or hair growth and distribution that you don’t want,” he says. “I don’t recommend it.”

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