Author: Amy Fleming
A growing number of people are eschewing soap and trusting bacteria to do the job instead – and an entire industry has sprung up to accommodate them.
David Whitlock has not showered or bathed for 15 years, yet he does not have body odour. “It was kind of strange for the first few months, but after that I stopped missing it,” he says. “If I get a specific part of my body dirty, then I’ll wash that specific part” – but never with soap. As well as germs, soap gets rid of the skin’s protective oils and alters its pH level. Although Whitlock appreciated gaining an extra 15 minutes a day from soap-dodging, his primary motivation was to encourage friendly microbes to live on him in symbiotic harmony. The bacteria get to feast on the ammonia from his sweat and he gets low-maintenance, balanced skin.
Just as awareness of the importance of the gut microbiome has led to a boom in probiotic and fermented foods and supplements, there is increasing interest in our skin microbiome: the trillions of microbes that protect us from pathogens and keep us healthy by making vitamins and other useful chemicals. In this unprecedentedly sanitised era, in which eczema, acne and problems associated with dry skin are rife, consumers are hungry for solutions. Even the mainstream brand Dove claims vaguely that its products are “microbiome-gentle”.
Sarah Ballantyne, a medical biophysicist turned author and lifestyle guru known as the Paleo Mom, has been an advocate of living in a more “stone age” way since reaching a healthy weight after adopting the Paleo diet. She, too, uses only water to wash, even though she is “at the gym sweating buckets six hours a week”. “I use coconut oil to shave and that’s it,” she says. “Over time, my skin has adjusted. I don’t smell.” She is working on a book about the human microbiome and is convinced her odour-free armpits are a sign that her skin microbiome is healthy.
Jackie Hong, a reporter in Yukon, north-west Canada, has eschewed soap in the shower for nine years. “I use my hands to scrub myself and get any grime off, but I’m sitting in court or at my desk most days, so it’s not like I’m getting bombarded with filth.” She was curious to go without soap after an artist told her that he hadn’t lathered up in 20 years. She says she saves time and money and needs “a lot less body lotion”.
“There’s nothing wrong with just rinsing,” says Sandy Skotnicki, a Toronto-based dermatologist and the author of the 2018 book Beyond Soap. “I’ve talked to people who haven’t used any kind of detergent in years and they’re perfectly fine.” She says that, since 1950, we have gone from bathing once a week to every day. “Has that changed our skin microbiome? I think the answer is yes. And has that caused a rise in inflammatory skin diseases? I think the answer is yes, but we don’t know.”
For Whitlock, a former chemical engineer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not washing has been a serious science experiment, the success of which has led him to become a trailblazer in a skincare revolution in soap-free, microbiome-friendly and probiotic products. His inspiration came from researching why horses roll in dirt. His conclusion? To top up their ammonia-metabilising bacteria, making the skin less susceptible to infection.
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