Confessions of a soapless man

One year ago, I stopped showering. I stopped using soap, too. I’d been thinking about it for a while, ever since I watched a video a few years ago with doctor, writer and public health expert James Hamblin interviewing people who’d simply given up cleaning themselves, mostly to help treat chronic skin problems medicine couldn’t treat.

I don’t have chronic skin problems, but I had a low-level awareness of being trapped in my own bad skin care loop: showering, getting annoyingly dry itchy skin, and then moisturizing to deal with it. Maybe the problem wasn’t related to the products I used, or even bad skin. Maybe the problem was showering itself.

I’m not an expert, or a scientist of any kind, but here’s the theory in a nutshell: We have a skin microbiome – or rather microbiomes, plural – composed of many millions of bacteria that coevolved with us, and live on us. By constantly blasting them with soap and cleansers, we’re knocking them horribly out of balance, with possible negative consequences for our skin and immune systems. In the West, where we’ve long since conquered the problems of basic hygiene, we now may be too clean for our own good.

You might be wondering, was a global pandemic really the smartest time to stop showering and using soap? Let me specify here that my journey to soaplessness has taken a detour around my hands. I’ve never stopped washing my hands with soap, and do so as frequently as is recommended. But socially speaking, it was the very best time to stop, because in Italy where I live lockdowns and social distancing started early and persisted, and I didn’t set foot in the office for nearly 18 months.

Which was useful, because when I stopped, I stank. At least at first. My wife, who has a nose so sensitive she can’t stand most commercial deodorants and beauty products, says I stopped smelling bad, and started just smelling human, after about the first week or two. My kids are still too young to be mortified by their weird father. And my friends… well, so far we’ve mostly spent time together outdoors, and the ones I’ve told have been mildly interested and indulgent.

Now, I rinse a little more frequently than I did at first. I often splash water on my face in the morning, and I get a quick rinse in the shower about once a week, after I go running. And the bidet, that most marvelous fixture in every Italian home, has certainly made it easier for me to keep other parts rinsed throughout the week. I still don’t use soap of course, except when I wash my hands afterwards.

One year on, was it worth it? I can’t give you any quantitative data on my skin microbiome, but I’ve certainly broken the endless cycle of cleansing and rehydrating, and my skin feels just fine. My environmental conscience is cleaner, as my new routine means no shampoo or conditioners down the drain and into our seas, and the water savings are enormous. And interestingly, just as I’ve realized I don’t need a shower to wake me up in the morning, I’ve also realized I don’t need as much coffee, either. I used to drink loads, but now I’ve drastically cut back to just one short espresso in the morning and one after lunch. And I often forget to have even those. Rather than feeling slack, like I’m giving up something essentially human, I take delight in the disciplined minimalism that humans can afford themselves, proving I can actually live well with much less.

This far into my soapless journey, I’m not itching to go back.

Author: Kyle Dugan, copywriter and translator living in Varese, Italy.