Maybe we’re actually meant to be dirty hippies after all. According to one doctor, we’re overdoing the soap big time, even during the time of a global pandemic. Here’s what you need to know soap and staying clean.
According to James Hamblin, Yale School of Public Health lecturer and podcast host for The Atlantic, soap destroys our skin’s microbiome. Hamblin is the author of the new book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less.
And while handwashing is critical for preventing the spread of disease, it’s not necessarily the best approach for the rest of your body, armpits and all, says Hamblin.
As Hamblin learned about the body’s external microbiome, he decided to forego the soap for a bit and never went back. That was five years ago. He queried the modern understanding and expectations around cleanliness. After all, humans survived millennia without Axe body wash. But by the 1920s, body odor was stigmatized. Advertising for soap further divorced us from our animal nature: you smell and you need to do something about it. (This same approach led to the shampoo industry and our habitual overwashing of hair.)
“We know from historical writings that certainly people smelled bad. We didn’t just accept all smells,” he told the Guardian. “Now, if someone smells sweaty or of anything less than soap, perfume or cologne, we think of that as being unclean.”
And that aversion has led to a rise in harmful chemical fragrances that permeate every aspect of our lives. From body care to laundry detergent to candles and air fresheners, we’re bombarding our lives with often toxic chemical fragrances. These synthetic fragrances often contain chemicals called phthalates that extend the life of a scent. It’s why you can smell someone’s laundry detergent on their clothes days after it came out of the dryer. Phthalates have been linked to numerous health issues including reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, birth defects, respiratory problems, and some forms of cancer.
These fragrances can also exacerbate skin issues. And Hamblin suggests the rise in chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne may also be the result of the constant prevention and removal of the skin’s microbiome. Scrubbing away the bacteria designed to protect the body and neutralize odors makes it come back stronger and more imbalanced, creating a cycle of skin issues and smells.
“As I gradually used less and less [soap], I started to need less and less,” Hamblin writes. “My skin slowly became less oily, and I got fewer patches of eczema. I didn’t smell like pine trees or lavender, but I also didn’t smell like the oniony body odour that I used to get when my armpits, used to being plastered with deodorant, suddenly went a day without it.” He smelled “like a person,” his girlfriend explained.
Antibiotic prescriptions have increased in recent decades. Most of us know taking a round of antibiotics can destroy healthy gut bacteria, and doctors often recommend replenishing with a probiotic supplement or foods (like yogurt or kraut). But antibiotics can also destroy the healthy bacteria on the skin as well.
Antibiotics have been prescribed for acne for years, but Hamblin says they “seem to play a part in causing and exacerbating autoimmune disease” and that “antibiotic overuse is likely to be a bigger threat to biomes than hygiene.”
Should you stop using soap?
The bottom line is a complicated one. Certainly handwashing is needed for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. It’s also necessary after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food.
But as for the rest of it? That’s pretty optional. Foregoing soap doesn’t mean foregoing washing — water and elbow grease are important. But you may want to experiment with soap-skipping. Just like our scalp benefits with days (even weeks) without hair washing, you may begin to see benefits to your skin.
While most of us are still sheltering at home the majority of the time, leaving off the deodorant is easier than ever, too. No one on your Zoom call will ever know.