Have your hygiene habits changed since the pandemic began? It seems they have for many.
The New York Times reports that the coronavirus pandemic has caused “some Americans to become more spartan” when it comes to bathing.
While this drop in hygiene standards may have some of us turning up our noses, literally, perhaps we should reconsider. The latest research shows that reluctant bathers could be on to something.
Your body is home to many bacteria. In fact, the importance of bacteria in the digestive tract, often called the gut microbiome, and its role in health and disease has been the focus of considerable research over the last decade.
However, there’s another complex and diverse ecosystem that also plays host to trillions of bacteria. And this ecosystem could be just as important as the one in our gut, especially since it covers our largest organ – the skin.
Bathing Can Damage Your Health
In the constant removal of bacterial, fungal and viral species with soap, we risk compromising our immune system, increasing vulnerability to allergies, and exacerbating – or even causing – skin conditions.
One doctor has taken this idea to heart, ditched the soap habit, and says his skin has never looked better.
James Hamblin, lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health and author of Clean: The New Science of Skin and The Beauty of Doing Less, uses soap to wash his hands multiple times a day, but otherwise, has “quit shampooing or conditioning or using soap…exfoliants…moisturizers and deodorants.”
“The vast majority of our skin microbes,” Dr. Hamblin writes, “seem to be not simply harmless but important to the skin’s function and, so, to the functioning of our immune systems.”
The largest microbes we carry are mites.
You Have Mites… and It’s a Good Thing
Demodex are half a millimeter in length, have four pairs of legs and burrow deep into our pores, including the pores on our faces.
“They’re a universal part of being human” explains biologist Michelle Trautwein.
Demodex feed off dead skin cells and act, in a way, as our very own natural exfoliant.
Another example of a helpful microbe is a species of fungus that’s commonly found on the feet, called Bacillus subtilis, which produces compounds that are lethal to the kind of fungi that cause infections like athletes foot and toenail fungus.
Then there’s Staphylococci, which secretes molecules that prevent colonization by other microbes. Not to mention other bacteria that slurp up skin oils and secrete acids to keep the skin’s pH at optimum levels. Research on mice even suggests a skin bacterium might help prevent skin cancer.
Scrubbing Could Cause Eczema
Dr. Hamblin talked to many experts for his book, one of which was microbiologist and dermatologist, Sandy Skotnicki.
Dr. Skotnicki explained that much of her time with male patients is spent pleading with them not to lather their whole body with shower gel but to just wash underarms, groin and feet, after which the condition of the skin outside these areas improves.
Washing strips away oils, leaving the skin drier and more porous, heightening the potential for reactions to irritants and allergens.
She believes this increases the likelihood of flare-ups in those with eczema. The change in the microbial population triggers the immune system causing skin cells to proliferate rapidly and fill with inflammatory proteins.
“And so, what if,” she speculates, “as a society you actually created eczema by overwashing?”
Julie Segre, from the National Institutes of Health, the first person to map the skin microbiome, agrees that we’re overusing soaps.
Diseases like eczema and acne “are clearly at least related to microbial imbalance,” she states.
She summed up the importance of microbes in an article published in 2012 in which she maintains that the microbes in and on us are “a source of genetic diversity, a modifier of disease, an essential component of immunity and a functional entity that influences metabolism and modulates drug interactions.”
If you’re having a hard time with this information, Dr. Hamblin urges you to remember a medical fact…
Hygiene is Not the Same as Cleanliness
Dr. Hamblin believes that when we scrub, shower and salve our skin we’re really taking part in a recreational and social practice that has nothing to do with good hygiene.
“I don’t want to tell anyone they’re wrong. Some people really love beauty. If someone has the money and time, and really enjoys those cleansing rituals, that’s their right. But it’s nothing to do with health or preventing anything.”
One of the experts he met and interviewed for his book was a chemical engineer who hadn’t showered in 15 years, but Dr. Hamblin doesn’t go that far.
“I take short, quick showers that aren’t hot,” using nothing but water. “It gives me a rinse, makes my hair lay down and makes me feel like there’s some divide between night and day, in this pandemic time, especially.”
His routine might be quite different to our own, but maybe we should all consider washing this way—or at least using less soap. Our skin’s microbiome would certainly appreciate it.
- Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin The Bodley Head 2020