“I quit showering, and life continued”

With more people working remotely, fewer people felt the need to shower every day (or even more often). This is an older article on what actually happens if you don’t use all those products and all that water.


I Quit Showering, and Life Continued

We spend two full years of our lives washing ourselves. How much of that time (and money and water) is a waste? By James Hamblin, published June 9, 2016

A woman peeking in on James Hamblin, who is fully dressed in a suit, in the shower
Nicolas Pollock / The Atlantic

12,167 hours of washing our bodies.

That’s how much life you use, if you spend 20 minutes per day washing and moisturizing your skin and hair (and you live to be 100, as we all surely will).

That adds up to nearly two entire years of washing every waking hour.

Not to mention water usage and the cost of cosmetic products—which we need, because commercials tell us to remove the oil from our skin with soap, and then to moisturize with lotion. Other commercials tell us to remove the oils from our hair, and then moisturize with conditioner.

That’s four products—plus a lot of water and time—and few people question whether it’s anything short of necessary.

It’s not just the fault of advertising, but also because most of us know from personal experience that if we go a few days without showering, even one day, we become oily, smelly beasts.

But what if you push through the oiliness and smelliness, embrace it, and just go forward?

Out of curiosity—not laziness—I tried it.

At first, I was an oily, smelly beast. The odor of bodies is the product of bacteria that live on our skin and feed off of the oily secretions from the sweat and sebaceous glands at the base of our hair follicles. Applying detergents (soaps) to our skin and hair every day disrupts a sort of balance between skin oils and the bacteria that live on our skin. When you shower aggressively, you obliterate the ecosystems. They repopulate quickly, but the species are out of balance and tend to favor the kinds of microbes that produce odor.

But after a while, the idea goes, your ecosystem reaches a steady state, and you stop smelling bad. I mean, you don’t smell like rosewater or Axe Body Spray, but you don’t smell like B.O., either. You just smell like a person.

Because, evolutionarily, why would we be so disgusting that we need constant cleaning? And constant moisturizing and/or de-oiling? If we do more to allow our oil glands and bacteria to equilibrate, the theory goes, skin should stop fluctuating between oily and dry.

In our video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, we’ve been exploring the microbiome in a three-episode series. The final segment is out today, embedded below. In it, I talk with microbiologist Martin Blaser about the consequences of cleaning our bodies as avidly as many people do. I also talk with a scientist at a biotech company called AOBiome that is selling live bacteria for people to spray on their skin in attempt to create a more Earthy ecosystem. Here’s the episode:

https://www.theatlantic.com/video/iframe/486161/The common definition of clean might be detrimental to our skin.

In the course of meeting these people and thinking more about skin microbes, I started using less soap, and less shampoo, and less deodorant, and showering less. I went from every day to every other day to every three. And now I’ve pretty much stopped altogether.

I still wash my hands, all the time, which remains an extremely important way to prevent communicable diseases.

I still rinse off elsewhere when I’m visibly dirty, like after a run when I have to wash gnats off my face, because there is still the matter of society. If I have bed head, I lean into the shower and wet it down. But I don’t use shampoo or body soap, and I almost never get into a shower.

At first I did smell bad, especially as I went without deodorant. I didn’t quit cold turkey, but transitioned from a traditional aluminum-based stick to Soapwalla, which is just some plant oils and starches. Aluminum is the “active ingredient” in many deodorants, specifically because it works as an antibiotic. As annoying as it is when things that are marketed as “natural”—because what does that mean—Soapwalla works well. But I’ve lately stopped that too.

And everything is fine. I wake up and get out the door in minutes. At times when I might’ve smelled bad before, like at the end of a long day or after working out,  I just don’t. At least, to my nose. I’ve asked friends to smell me, and they insist that it’s all good. (Though they could be allied in an attempt to ruin me.)

Obviously if you work in close quarters with people who are upset by the smell of bodies, trying this is inconsiderate. You may have to move to the wilderness first, or to a sailboat house (which you could buy with the money you save on skin and hair products). And as with anything I suggest, consult the people you love and your life coach before attempting.

I don’t know if everyone will achieve a detergent-free steady state, which is extreme, but I do think there’s room to question the endless marketing of cosmetic skin and hair cleansers and the need for daily showers.

The biggest dilemma might be what to do with all the extra time.

Two extra years of life.

How to fill the days?

James Hamblin, M.D., is a former staff writer at The Atlantic. He is also a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health, a co-host of Social Distance, and the author of Clean: The New Science of Skin.

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