Why This Doctor Is Making An Argument for Showering Less
James Hamblin is a physician and health reporter. He is also the author of the book “Clean: The New Science of Skin.” In order to write this book, he interviewed a wide variety of people including CEOs, scientists, and a collector of historic soap advertisements.
Hamblin believes that we are all showering too often. He hasn’t showered in 5 years. He still wets his hair from time to time to eliminate bed head, and he washes his hands and rinses his body when he gets visibly dirty. That’s it. No real shower.
Hamblin often gets asked if he smells, and he’s sick of that question. He doesn’t like that it’s considered appropriate and even funny in our society to say that someone is “gross” or “smelly.” He said, “We’ve gotten a lot better, culturally, about not judging people about all kinds of things, but when people smell or don’t use deodorant, somehow it’s OK to say, ‘You’re gross’ or ‘Stay away from me!’ and it gets a laugh. I’m trying to push back against the sense of there being some universal standard of normalcy.”
You’re probably wondering why Hamblin hasn’t showered in 5 years. Is there something wrong with being clean? NPR interviewed Hamblin, and his responses about what cleanliness means and how showering daily might be doing more harm than good are definitely worth considering.
First of all, Hamblin makes a clear distinction between “hygiene” and “cleansing rituals.” He stresses that hygiene is important. He also clarifies that hygiene is “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.”
According to Hamblin, everything else is just a cleansing ritual and often a societal preference. For example, combing your hair or whitening your teeth has nothing to do with disease prevention.
You’re probably thinking that cleansing rituals can’t hurt you, but Hamblin warns that they might. For starters, they can be expensive and time-consuming. At worst, they might disrupt our skin’s microbiom. He points out that if we buy products that promise to fix certain problems like acne and eczema, it’s also possible that products could make these problems worse. “If a product does meaningfully shift your biome, then it has the capacity to create effects that you didn’t want…I think a lot of people buy products like this thinking, ‘It can’t hurt, right?’ And I would suggest keeping in mind that if something can help, that it can hurt.”
How often do you shower? Are you going to re-think what cleaning products you use or experiment with showering less often?