The beauty and bother of beards

Beards? I just don't get it. Yeah, I've grown them in the past but really, why bother?

Smelly, full of dribble, toast crumbs and yesterday's spaghetti. A thorny hedge to the ones you love, a sure sign that you have Something To Hide and itchy, itchy, itchy.

Am I missing something? Maybe it's the cold winter but everyone seems to be sporting a beard: serially smooth-skinned co-workers, every second man who pops up in the social pages of the paper and even Tiger Woods.

That's one of the plus points of a beard - it can say so much: ''I'm super manly''; ''I've really, really changed''; ''I'm so full of testosterone it's bustin' outta me''; "I'll never stray again''; "This is not a fake ID''; ''I am no longer the face of Gillette''; ''I'm very, VERY now''.

Sharon Blain from The Art of Hair salon in Sydney has quite a few good things to say about beards.

They're personality changing, she says, a good way to keep warm and cover up skin scarred by acne. They make a younger man appear more manly, mature and sexy.

''They're also a great way to create a sense of style and security when lacking in the hair department,''  she says.

And they give a degree of UV protection.  But Blain also notes the downside of the beard.

"They're scratchy when up close and personal and permanent unkempt stubble can give an illusion of laziness.''

And smokers with beards note - you smell like an ashtray.
It's the change in the way I look that is the driver whenever I've let a beard grow. It is the best way a man can get a new face. And in the end - after weeks and, once, months - it's the itchiness that has me reaching for the razor.

One thing I always forget about beards when I'm clean shaven is the upkeep. Not having to shave is appealing, especially when on holiday or between engagements. But then, when the beard's grown, there's all the clipping and trimming to keep those pesky strands at bay and stop me from looking too much like Grizzly Adams. And have I mentioned the itching?

Clive Allwright from Our Place Salon in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point attends to the needs of a lot of bearded types.

"It's important to maintain the shape as the beard grows,'' he says.

''Most beards grow out from the sides and keeping them tame really effects the face shape. You don't want to walk into the pub and be called a gnome.

''I have a selection of male clientele that come in once a week to have the 'line out' under the jaw to keep the hair from growing down into the collar of the shirt. This also needs to be tapered, and a line around the lip area is needed to keep a 'kept' look. This stops coffee being stuck to your lip after drinking."

I've tried doing the trimming myself with nail scissors and a comb. Doesn't work well, believe me. But there are quite a few good home facial trimmers on the market. The Remington Professional ($63.95) has nine settings to allow anything from Hugh Laurie designer stubble (the House star has just become the latest ambassador for L'Oreal) via a rugged Jake Gyllenhal look all the way to a neat Ned Kelly or the Santa Claus.

And that's one thing - and this isn't a bad one by any means - about beards today: there only seem to be a few styles on display. Where's the beard and no 'tache preacher look (tried it, looked stupid, shaved it off) the Allman Brother tache and chops (tried it, was told I looked very stupid, shaved it off) or the full Tasmanian? 

And what about the itching? Willy Gruyelle, a young, bearded Frenchman who recently moved to Australia, reckons Clinique Scruffing Lotion ($35) works a treat. It's an exfoliator that promises ''to remove potentially pore-clogging dead skin flakes and excess oil''. Any other good exfoliator would probably do the same thing.

And, being French,  Gruyelle also has something to say on beards and kissing: ''As far as I’m concerned, when mastered, I don’t see it as an obstacle," he says.

So what do you think? Beard or not? Designer stubble, or hairy backwoodsman? And how long have you kept one before the stale saliva, the trimming and the itching drove you completely and utterly crazy?