It has been more than five years since Dr. James Hamblin had a proper shower.
He still regularly washes his hands with soap and water. Occasionally, he’ll pop under the shower-head to tame his bed-head or rinse away some actual dirt from his skin. But he doesn’t shampoo his hair or lather his body.
“You don’t look and smell the same as after you go through an elaborate skin-care regimen or, you know, have lathered yourself in fine-smelling soaps. But you don’t smell terrible either,”
“You’re just sort of in an equilibrium. And you smell, as I’m told, like a human.”
Hamblin is a preventative medicine doctor, a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health and a staff writer for the Atlantic. His new book, Clean: The New Science of Skin, asks readers to question the multitude of products they’re being sold in the name of hygiene and personal care, and whether some of them may, in fact, be doing more harm than good.
He says a global pandemic could be a better time than ever to experiment with cutting back on those products — and on showering overall.
The rapid expansion of personal hygiene products
A hundred years ago, having running water and a bar of soap in the home was a new phenomenon, Hamblin said.
Nowadays, a single family’s bathroom may be home to an incredible array of products — scented soaps, body washes, shampoos, conditioners, cream rinses, facial cleansers, and an assortment of creams, ointments and serums all meant for specific body parts.
“It is a brilliant story of marketing,” he said.
“It’s basically a process of segmenting and growth by the big corporations that have sold us these things and found ways to make these products slightly differentiated so that they are maybe a little different colour, a little different scent, a little different concentration, and making whole new products out of them.”
That original shift toward personal hygiene was based in science, Hamblin said, and helped curb the spread of disease and infections.
“But it really quickly devolved away from from actual disease prevention practices and toward wealth and class signifiers.”
That linking of cleanliness to class, Hamblin says, has had devastating consequences for society at large.
“Throughout the history of the idea of cleanliness, it has been used maliciously as being used to justify racism and xenophobia, and we’ve we’ve called other groups unclean since before we had germ theory as a way of just differentiating ourselves and justifying plunder,” he said.
Asked what he thinks of comments by U.S. President Donald Trump about increasing water pressure from showerheads to have a more intense shower experience and injecting disinfectant to combat COVID-19, he said that “goes hand-in-hand with a lot of germ phobia.”
“There are clear tropes with purity and cleanliness that become very easily tied up in toxic ways, toward thinking you just want to eradicate all foreign entities,” he said.
“That is where you start to see very clearly a propensity to just think of all germs are bad and purity as good as this hyper-simplified version of the actual way that we should be thinking about our skin and our microbial worlds.”
Balancing your bacteria
Human skin is covered in bacteria. And Hamblin says that’s not a bad thing.
“They are all over us all the time. So we are never without the skin microbiome. We wouldn’t want to be. It’s a normal feature of us,” Hamblin said.
“We’re really just starting to understand the depths of the importance of what those microbes are doing and how to keep that microbiome healthy. But it does seem clear that the answer is not to try to simply clear cut the forest as much as possible.”
Instead, he says the key could be to allow the microbiome to find its natural balance.
Bacteria feeds off our natural oils, which also acts as a moisture barrier for your skin. So excessive washing can lead to dry skin and exacerbate conditions like eczema. And then people try to fight that dry skin with yet more products.
“For some people who are doing just fine and enjoying their daily regimens and not having any skin issues, you know, I say more power to you,” Hamblin said.
“But there are plenty of people out there who kind of get into these cycles of having flares of acne or eczema and trying to, you know, use more and more products and clean more and more aggressively. And there’s a big segment of that population who finds that, actually, things get better when you taper off.”
Hamblin says he’s not out to convince everyone to stop showering like he did. He says he understands how important the ritual can be for people.
“I hope that by the end of [the book], though, people have sort of gone along with me on this journey to trace our beliefs and our practices and come out at the other end sort of questioning what is really necessary and what is not,” he said.
Acne may be worse with high vitamin levels
But if you do feel like cutting back, Hamblin figures there’s no better time, even during a pandemic that has people being hyper-vigilant about hygiene.
“I think there is long overdue attention to hand-washing, to not touching your face, rubbing your eyes, picking your nose, to being conscious of where you’re directing your respiratory droplets, not coughing and sneezing on people or anywhere near people,” he said.
“But at the same time, a lot of people are working from home, working partly remotely, spending a lot more time at home as it is, and being more relaxed about ….self-care practices that weren’t really necessary in the first place.”
Just take it slow, he says, and be patient.
“This was something I just sort of weaned myself off of slowly,” he said. “I don’t recommend that anyone quit cold turkey because it tends not to go well. “
Written by Sheena Goodyear.