No suds: Why I've been soap-free for seven years
No need to get yourself in a skin care lather, insist experts.
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Those are the top three reactions when someone learns I haven’t showered with soap in seven years.
My soap-free saga began when I was an impressionable teenager in Grade 11. The artist-in-residence at my high school mentioned he hadn’t used soap on his body in about 20 years, except to occasionally scrub paint off his hands.
When I gave him that mildly disgusted look that I’m now all too familiar with, he shot back, “Well, do I smell?”
“No,” I answered truthfully, and that was that.
In a world where drugstore aisles are reserved for sudsy, pleasant-smelling bars and bottles, where soap holders are built into bathtubs and business empires created out of “natural” shower gels and bath bombs, soap is so tightly intertwined with cleanliness that shunning it is linked to a rejection of hygiene.
But an informal survey of my coworkers and friends found that I don’t smell awful, or much at all. My boyfriend even says I smell nice — value that as you will. My skin isn’t greasy. I haven’t developed any strange conditions or infections. I’m not forgoing bathing completely; I still shower daily, just with water and nothing else, and still wash my hands with soap.
I’ve suffered no ill side-effects by not lathering up, yet the idea is repulsive to some. Am I secretly a cesspool of filth, covered in grime and disease that are invisible to the human eye?
“If you go to work and you dress in a long-sleeve shirt and pants and you’re in your office all day and you go home, there’s no reason for you to use soap,” said Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Division of Dermatology who’s writing a book on the topic.
“Even if you’ve been at the gym, you don’t necessarily need soap … water is more than enough to clean off.”
In fact, Skotnicki said, using too much soap can be a bad thing.
The word “soap” has become a catch-all for almost any personal cleaning product that makes bubbles, but true soap is made by combining animal fat with lye, a strong cleaning chemical.
Many modern “soap” products, such as Cetaphil and Dove’s “cleansing” bars, are made with synthetic detergents, which can be gentler on skin but clean in essentially the same way: by binding to fat and grease, including the oils and fats found naturally in skin.
“I like to use the example of a brick wall, so the mortar in between the bricks is the fat in the outer barrier of our skin,” she said. “Soap’s going to remove it more, because it’s quite harsh, and detergents are going to remove it less … I’m forever telling people to stop cleaning so much, stop using so many products. I see itchy, dry people all day and I’m always saying, ‘Why are you washing if you’re not dirty? Stop washing if you’re not dirty.’”
Skotnicki calls the association between soap, cleanliness and health a psychological hangover from the days before indoor plumbing, when diseases were rampant and bathing a luxury reserved for the wealthy.
“The cleaner that you were, way back in the early days when we didn’t have showers in every home, you were more healthy,” she said. “Nowadays, it’s not necessary. It’s gone overboard and it’s really to sell product.”
Jack Gilbert, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Surgery and faculty director of the MicroBiome Center says thanks to vaccines, and other public health works, most dangerous pathogenic microorganisms have been eradicated from society.
So the chance any nasty germs are hanging out on your skin are next to none, although you should still wash your hands with warm, soapy water to prevent the spread of things like colds and flu. In fact, coming into contact with raw sewage now is relatively safe.
“It seems bizarre, because for many, many years, there were so many life-threatening diseases that were affecting our society that doing that would’ve been an immediate death sentence,” Gilbert said. "I’m not saying anyone should frolic in raw sewage … but on the whole, raw sewage isn’t necessarily going to contain a lot of extraordinarily dangerous bugs.”
Your skin hosts a mini ecosystem of bacteria, viruses and fungi — known as a microbiome — that impact everything from how fast wounds heal, to how skin ages, to how you smell, said Gilbert.
“The idea that you can sterilize your skin and remove all those bacteria — it’s just not true. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
Even after a shower with vigorous soaping and scrubbing, skin bacteria repopulate in five to 10 minutes.
Since research on the human skin microbiome is still in its infancy, it’s not clear what impact using (or not using) different products could have in the long-term, Gilbert said, adding too much cleaning, at least for babies, can have a negative effect.
“We know that in babies, if they’re bathed … maybe two or three times a day because their parents seem to think that you have to sterilize the child all the time, that they’ll suffer from a significantly higher rate of disease in their skin,” he said. “And you say, ‘Oh, they’re drying their skin out,’ but also, they’re losing that beneficial bacteria population that exists on their skin.”
So, not using soap does not make me a filthy heathen — if anything, it might actually be beneficial for my skin.
Of course, if you have a skin condition that requires special treatment or a lifestyle that puts you in contact with a lot of grime every day, going soap-free might not work out for you, but if not, maybe give it a try. At the least, you’ll save a couple of dollars — and maybe your skin will thank you.