Why Are We So Grossed Out by Hair in Food?

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In Too Afraid to Ask, we’re answering food-related questions that may or may not give you goosebumps. Today: I found a hair in my food—now what?

There’s nothing that’ll turn me off a nice bowl of cacio e pepe faster than discovering a human hair lurking in the pasta. I’ll admit that, in most cases, the hair in question is one of my own—long and blonde, pretending to be spaghetti. Every once in a while, though, I find a strand in a meal that is decidedly not mine, and it sends me into a spiral.

I say that as a pretty disgusting person. I chew my nails. I still tell myself the five-second rule is real. And I have double-dipped a chip or two at parties (safe space, yeah?). But even I draw the line at human hair; there’s something so…cannibalistic…about finding it in my food. Or worse: my mouth. Humans eating humans is a bit of a literary kink in novels and on screens right now, but here in the real world, I certainly do not have a taste for my own kind.

So, let’s untangle the history, culture, and science of finding human hair in food.

What is hair?

Though it grows from follicles found on our scalps, “hair is not living,” says Amy K. Bieber, MD, a dermatologist at NYU Langone. (That’s why haircuts don’t hurt.) It’s primarily composed of a type of protein called keratin, the same tough and insoluble material that makes up our skin and nails.

Is eating hair dangerous?

Swallowing a stray hair or two is unlikely to cause any harm. Our digestive system can’t process keratin, so “the hair itself just goes through your digestive system and comes out in your poop,” says Bieber.

Plus, we already kind of eat hair. One of the main amino acids found in keratin, L-cysteine, is often used as a dough conditioner (enhancing the elasticity of bread and baked goods) and a preservative in food processing. It’s most commonly derived from purified poultry feathers and certain types of animal hair.

Eating a lot of hair, though, is dicey. It can potentially lead to gastrointestinal discomfort—and even a trichobezoar, which is a hairball that gets lodged in the stomach or intestines, sometimes causing blockages and digestive issues. Trichobezoars are rare and more commonly associated with a compulsive hair-eating disorder known as trichophagia.

Can germs hitchhike on human hair?

Individual hairs don’t harbor a significant amount of harmful pathogens. The hair shaft can potentially pick up bacteria, fungi, yeast, or other microbes from the environment or our scalps—such as Staphylococcus aureus, which affects hair follicles. But it’s unlikely that a few hairs would harbor enough dangerous microorganisms to cause significant health issues, says Bieber.

There are certain types of hair infections, such as white piedra, that can grow on the hair shaft. “But they’re very uncommon,” says Bieber, “and even if they’re ingested, it’s probably fine.” Some good context: Any of the organisms found on someone else’s hair, you’ve probably already eaten via your own hair, skin, and nails.

If a stowaway hair lingers in your leftovers, theoretically pathogenic bacteria on it could multiply and colonize food in the right conditions. Though storing hair-spiked leftovers in the fridge essentially shuts down that house party, as cold temperatures stunt microbial growth.

Why do food handlers wear hairnets?

The prevalence of hairnets in prep kitchens is more about culture than hygiene. In the early 1900s, the iconic “Castle Bob” haircut, a short style popularized by dancer Irene Castle, coincided with a rise in women entering the workforce during World War I. As these women no longer needed hairnets to hold their curlers in place overnight, the industry—yes, a man, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward L. Bernays at that—came up with a solution: We’ll force them into it.

Recognized as the pioneer of public relations, Bernays, who was hired by a hairnet manufacturer, initiated campaigns highlighting the safety hazards associated with having loose hair near factory equipment and food. His efforts eventually led to laws across various states mandating the use of hair restraints in restaurants. Today, the FDA Food Code, a guide for the food service sector that’s often at least partially adopted into state laws, advises employees to “wear hair restraints such as hats, hair coverings or nets, beard restraints, and clothing that covers body hair, that are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting exposed food.”

While the FDA has no record of anyone ever getting sick from ingesting stray hair, roughly 50 to 100 hairs fall out of our heads every day. It’s true that without hairnets, kitchen workers are more likely to shed a few. (Here’s how to send a dish back at a restaurant if you find a strand.) But, as Bieber reminds us, eating hair “isn’t dangerous, it’s just ‘gross’ because society tells us it should be gross.”

Okay, but what about animal hair?

If you live with a furry friend, whose literal job is self-grooming, odds are there is animal hair all over your home. It’s inevitable that a strand or two will make its way into your lentil soup or chicken paprikash. The good news is, unless you are literally licking your cat (a story for another day), it’s nothing to worry about. Animal hair, like ours, is mostly keratin—so it’s not inherently dangerous.

And while you probably won’t see a raccoon flipping pancakes at the diner anytime soon, fur from wild animals might carry a higher risk of harboring bacteria or parasites than a rogue mustache whisker from a sexually competent dirtbag line cook—or that cat you definitely haven’t been licking. Even so, the FDA has legislated acceptable “defect levels” for commercially prepared foods: ground cinnamon, for example, is only considered “adulterated” at “11 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams.”

Human hair doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

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