Soap is the cornerstone of a civilized society, right?
Ours may be breaking down rather quickly these days, but as belligerent and intolerant and boneheaded as people have become, we still all expect people to keep themselves clean — it’s the least you can do for your fellow humans. But what if staying clean meant no soap necessary? In fact, what if you might actually be healthier without soap? Is soap somehow washing away something good? What happens if you stop using soap and shampoo entirely?
We’re soaping up some answers alongside two guys who’ve both sworn off soap when showering: James Hamblin, physician, staff writer for The Atlantic and author of Clean: The New Science of Skin; and Jack Gilbert, a renowned microbial ecology professor at the University of California, San Diego and co-author of Dirt Is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System. No need to hold your nose!
What Soap Does
Soap is pretty amazing stuff, as ancient people inadvertently discovered when they probably washed themselves downriver from a fortuitous mix of animal fat and burnt ash. Each soap molecule has one end that bonds with water and another end that bonds with oils, meaning it has the chemical power to basically unlock an oil or fat compound from whatever it’s sticking to. If you’re actually dirty, it’s essential for washing the dirt off. But soap also washes off your body’s sweat and natural oils, those sebaceous secretions that emanate through your skin’s pores. Sounds great, but that’s actually not as good as you think it is.
All That Stuff on Your Skin
Sometimes it seems like humans have figured out pretty much everything, but other times it seems we’re massively overlooking a lot of stuff, including our own damn skin! Only now are we beginning to take a closer look at it, and Gilbert says there’s a lot going on. Those sebaceous secretions help moisturize your skin and maintain the correct pH, plus they support a complex microbiome (a miniature, multispecies world of bacteria) on our skin that we’re just starting to understand.
Having your skin’s pH is out-of-balance can cause inflammation and dryness, and while we’re learning more about the skin’s microbiome all the time, Gilbert says that stripping it away can influence immune responses and inflammation as well. “Diseases like psoriasis are often associated with a disruption in these skin properties and the microbiome,” he says.
The problem with soap, then, is that it basically nukes all this stuff away. Your skin is left dry, barren and temporarily lifeless after a decent soap application. That said, both Hamblin and Gilbert want to stress that they still use soap for washing their hands, especially these days.
What It’s Like to Shower Without Soap
Hamblin gradually gave up showering without soap five years ago, and says he’s probably never going back. “I’ve gotten in a routine where I don’t need it,” he says, adding that his body has adjusted. He doesn’t smell oniony, but rather, “like a human,” according to his wife. “She thinks I smell good,” he says. In fact, Hamblin didn’t even rinse every day until the pandemic started, after which he eventually appreciated that showering added a nice structure to the start of the day.
He says you can still scrub excess oil and dead skin cells off your face and body with a washcloth or the power of your own hands; as for the hair, simply combing it, or using some kind of physical force, does the trick. You don’t need a detergent, like shampoo, to remove oily buildup.
Gilbert mostly showers without soap, though he deploys a bit of it strategically: He shampoos his hair when it’s dirty, and in a way that doesn’t come in contact with his skin. Otherwise, he only uses soap on the pits and bits, you could say.
What’s Actually Smelling When You Smell Bad
It’s not technically sweat that makes a stinky person stink. Here’s what really happens: When your kidneys break down amino acids (protein), one byproduct is ammonia. Your body gets rid of this ammonia in two ways — peeing it out and sweating it out. A lot of different kinds of microbes like to feast on this ammonia emanating through your sweat glands, but there are some species of bacteria that emit a really smelly odor when they metabolize all the stuff on your skin that they like to eat. That’s what makes a person stink.
The thing is, skin microbiome research is extremely new — Hamblin says we didn’t really know how much was going on, on our own skin until about 10 years ago! All that is just beginning to change now that genomic sequencing allows scientists to see the bigger picture with regard to the whole biome, and how much bacteria is really there. So for now, Hamblin’s regimen is essentially a hypothesis, which is that B.O. is due to an imbalance of microbes (this imbalance also plays a role in acne and eczema, he says).
“The idea is that if you stop obliterating those microbes or constantly changing their habitat, that they reach a sort of steady state, more similar to your gut microbes,” says Hamblin. “So it just becomes more even-keeled. You don’t go from looking a certain way in the morning and then completely oily the next morning if you don’t shower. You just kind of always look similar, smell similar, and your microbes are in a state where you’re not likely to get some overgrowth that’s going to make you smell repulsive to other people.”
Cleaning Throughout History
So were earlier people healthier, since they bathed less? It’s not that simple. Western civilization has a complicated relationship with bathing and cleanliness: The Ancient Greeks and Romans were into it, but for many centuries, Europe discouraged bathing, due to a perfect storm of syphilis, bubonic plague and the Catholic Church. Even Saint Francis of Assisi said that a dirty body was a symbol of piety, and he was far from alone in this unfortunate belief.
“For about 500 years, medieval England was a stinky place,” Gilbert says. “The complication is they had no vaccines or antibiotics. So skin diseases were a major issue, and you cannot separate changes in cleanliness over the centuries with improvements in medicine.”
What Happens If You Stop Using Soap and Shampoo
The biggest question people have, of course, is how you’ll smell. Gilbert says there are a lot of factors that determine your body’s own aroma, and how you might smell without soaping up: What you eat, where you live, how much physical activity you do, and so on. There’s no guarantee that everyone will smell enchantingly musky or whatever.
But a lot of that perception of what smells good has to do with our social conditioning. In his book, Hamblin points out that it was soap marketing that created “B.O.” as a concept. He points out that humans often tend to think of their health in binaries: Is this thing good for you or bad for you? Do you have a condition, or do you not? When you label “body odor” as a discrete condition, it makes it easy for marketers to sell things, such as a specific product that claims to get rid of body odor.
The reality is, we have a broad spectrum of odors and are always giving off chemical signals. It’s long been essential for interpersonal communications, and the microbes are part of it all. “We need signature odors,” he says. “Nowadays we’re supposed to think that if you can smell someone at all, it means they’re gross and disgusting and they need to do something about it. It’s a lot more interesting than that. You never want to offend other people, but just because someone can recognize the way you smell doesn’t mean you’re morally suspect.”
And if you think Hamblin’s wife may just be flattering him, he put his co-workers and friends on the spot while he was working on the book, asking them to say so if they ever thought he smelled bad (what are friends for, eh?). “As people knew I was doing this, they wanted to take part because they want to tell you you smell,” he said. “That was honestly the whole book tour. So I didn’t conduct a clinical trial here, but I asked enough people regularly enough, and I have enough self awareness to know I’m not offensive to people.”
So, yeah — you can certainly cleanse without soap (just keep washing your hands with it, please). You will no longer smell like a field of lavender, or whatever an Irish spring supposedly smells like. But your skin will likely be better for it, and with time, you will smell like an actual person, which actually sounds more alluring.