Find out why James Hamblin is tired of being asked if he’s smelly.

“Hamblin, a physician and health reporter has been fielding the question since 2016, when the article he wrote about his decision to stop showering went viral. He outlines compelling reasons why one might want to spend less time sudsing up: Cosmetic products are expensive, showering uses a lot of water, and the whole process takes up valuable time.”

“Perhaps most importantly, bathing disrupts our skin’s microbiome: the delicate ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, mites and viruses that live on (and in) our body’s largest organ.”

Most of these microbes are thought to be benign freeloaders; they feast on our sweat and oils without impacting our health. A small number cause harmful effects, ranging in severity from an irksome itch to a life-threatening infection. And some help us out by, for example, preventing more dangerous species from taking up residence.”

Researchers are in the early days of developing the full picture of just how substantially this diverse living envelope influences our overall health, and many of their findings suggest that the microbes on our skin are even more important than was previously understood. Skin has long been considered to be our first line of defense against pathogens, but new studies suggest that the initial protection may come from the microbes that live on its surface.

Meanwhile, the health care and cosmetics industries are already at work developing new categories of “prebiotic” treatments and skin care products that claim to cultivate our skin’s population of beneficial microbes and banish the troublemakers.
Hamblin’s new book, Clean: The New Science of Skin, is a documentary survey of this pre-dawn moment in our understanding of the skin microbiome. Hamblin spoke with people from a wide range of specialized perspectives:

  • a collector of historic soap advertisements
  • megafans of a minimalist cosmetics brand
  • several CEOs
  • many types of scientists, including a “disgustologist”
  • the founder of a style of addiction recovery treatment centered on the therapeutic potential of human touch.

    Hamblin was interviewed about the benefits and social dynamics of showering less, and the coming wave of microbially-optimized cosmetics.

    (This interview has been edited for length.)
    He challenge some cultural norms about hygiene. 

    There’s a distinction between “hygiene” and “cleansing rituals” that’s especially important in this moment.

‘”Hygiene” is the more scientific or public health term, where you’re really talking about disease avoidance or disease prevention behaviors. Removal of mucus, vomit, blood feces … any behavior that signals to people “I am thoughtful about not transmitting diseases to you, and I’m a safe person to be around.” That would include hand-washing, brushing your teeth, cleaning of open wounds, even mask-wearing. I don’t think any of that stuff is due for questioning.”

“But a lot of the other things that we do are class and wealth signifiers — like combing your hair or whitening your teeth or wearing deodorant — which actually have nothing to do with disease avoidance or disease transmission. They’re really much more of a personal or cultural preference. And that’s where people are experimenting with doing less.”

“And there’s the emerging science of the skin microbiome. Being clean [has historically] meant removing microbes from ourselves, so it’s an important moment to try to clarify what, exactly, we’re trying to do when we’re doing the hygiene behaviors.”

“Some people are misconstruing the central thesis of your book as “shower less like I did.” 

“I think that many people — not everyone — could do less, if they wanted to. We are told by marketing, and by some traditions passed down, that it’s necessary to do more than it actually is. Your health will not suffer. And your body is not so disgusting that you need to upend your microbial ecosystem every day.”

It’s mainstream to think about your microbiome.

“Twenty years ago, the idea of kombucha, and probiotics, and trying to have a healthy biome in your gut were really fringe hippie concepts. And now we’re doing clinical trials of fecal transplants.  People are being more conscious about things like antibiotic overuse because they don’t want to potentially disrupt the gut microbiome. That has been a really radical shift.”

“. . . if things like acne, eczema and psoriasis are the result of an interplay between your immune system and the microbes on your skin, it is, indeed, scientifically a very promising and cool hypothesis to think that we can shift that microbiome and help people through their flares or outbreaks. That science is supersound.”

“We’re really riding a fine line between drugs and beauty products here, which makes it very hard for consumers to know.”

“Most likely these products are not doing anything. Because there’s so little regulatory oversight on this type of product, we don’t even know for sure that they contain what they claim to contain. And if they were significantly changing your skin microbes, I would want to be extremely careful that there was indeed evidence to back up that that change was good and worth making.”

“So just because scientists are learning that the microbiome might be important for our health, the solution to skin problems is not necessarily “go to the drugstore and buy a probiotic shampoo.”The skin is very often an external manifestation of our overall health. Very rarely is something limited to the skin.”

“I’m not telling anyone that they should do less, basically. I’m only trying to understand why we do the things that we do.”