Talk dirty to me
We’ve been taught our entire life the importance of good hygiene, and how frequent use of soap is essential to avoid offending the noses of the people around us, and to steer clear of infectious disease. How accurate are these teachings, and may they even be damaging our health in ways we never imagined? Now I could present my typical argument to you that common body products contain toxic chemicals that we should all avoid, and I certainly will, but there are some further risks you should consider the next time you lather up in the shower.
Goodbye antibacterial, hello probacterial
Recently there has been an emerging field of research and media coverage on the roles bacteria play inside our bodies, specifically within our digestive system. Probiotic foods such as yogurt and kombucha are commonly found in natural food stores, along with the probiotic capsules that doctors often prescribe following a dose of antibiotics for your infection. That may not be news to you, but did you know that scientists are now pioneering into a less understood territory and have begun researching the beneficial roles that bacteria may play ON our bodies, and not just inside our bodies? In this New York Times article the author highlights an innovative company called AOBiome that is attempting to sell a probiotic product that you apply externally rather than swallowing. Initially they plan to offer this as a health enhancing product, but hope to someday get approval to treat specific skin diseases with their product.
Colonize it, don’t criticize it, yeah…
The concept behind reducing the use of soap, and maybe even intentionally applying bacteria to your skin, is that all these years we may have been inadvertently removing bacteria from our skin that serve a purpose. Imagine if some species of bacteria naturally exist on our skin in a balanced ecosystem that reduces odors, prevents disease, and allows wounds to heal. Now imagine what happens to that harmonious ecosystem when you scrub your skin with a soap made of harsh chemicals 1-2 times every day. Research is ongoing, and we are far from any conclusions, but if external bacterial colonies prove to be beneficial then we will realize that for decades we have been battling the bacteria that exist to help us. This definitely wouldn’t be the first time humans thought they could improve a perceived inferior natural situation only to actually make matters worse. Just as we are now learning that dietary fat is actually good for our health despite being told for decades that it will kill us and make us obese, I wouldn’t be surprised if scientists discover that we should be trying to build colonies of bacteria on our skin rather than destroy them. Obviously those in certain professions, surgeons or food handlers for example, need to be very careful with their hygiene, but there is increasing concern that antibiotic soaps are being overused by the average person, and now companies like AOBiome are showing just how far down the wrong path we may have traveled.
The vicious cycle
I don’t know about you, but even though the research is only now beginning, a lot of this seems intuitive to me. We buy all these harsh soaps that our parents and the corporations taught us to use, then we buy all these creams and products to moisturize our skin after stripping our skin of the oils that our body naturally produces. We would rather apply chemicals that were developed in a factory to moisturize our skin than rely on our own bodies, or use plant based oils. Next we buy cosmetics to cover all the damage caused by the harsh soaps and chemical intensive body products. It seems to me that cosmetics often times are just substitutions for not taking care of your body. Finally we go to the doctor to receive a prescription for a pharmaceutical skin product to help us with our skin conditions that seem so common now. Perhaps these skin conditions are partially caused by our excessive chemical use and our deficiency in beneficial bacteria? Regardless of the cause of common skin conditions, I try to avoid the faulty logic that traps people in this vicious cycle and have reduced my use of soap and body products. The only body products I’m using are the occasional use of sunscreen and deodorant as I experiment with various essential oils to find an effective substitute for deodorant.
What are you waiting for?
The company in the New York Times article expects at least a decade to maneuver through the approval process of the FDA, but that doesn’t mean you need to wait years to experiment on your skin. As I mentioned, I reduced my use of soap, but I still take warm showers and use soap when and where it is needed. If you do use soap then try to find a mild natural version like Dr Bronner’s or Sappo Hill. Experiment, see what works best for you and ask your partner to sniff you and give their honest opinion. In the Steve Jobs autobiography former coworkers often complained about his odor, but Jobs would ignore them and argue (mistakenly) that vegans don’t stink. I’m not encouraging you to offend your neighbors like Jobs did, instead try to find a balance between reducing the chemical attack on your skin and smelling pleasant for others around you.
The innovative company mentioned above is really not very innovative, they are simply reintroducing a concept that has been with us since the beginning of human history; bacteria live on our skin, and it is probably not bad for us, and maybe even good for us. I wonder if it is worth buying their product when similar results could probably be achieved by reducing the use of harsh soaps, and finding natural ways of applying bacteria to your skin. In Ayurveda plant based oils are regularly applied to the skin to prevent and treat numerous health conditions, and artificial products are avoided, as they are known to be absorbed through the skin and consumed similarly to the food you put in your mouth. Following the application of these oils I have been advised to rinse off excess oil with a warm shower, but not to use soap as this would reduce the benefits. The reality is that in this modern world most of us are really not dirty at all. How dirty do you get sitting at the desk and typing on the keyboard? If you work at a petroleum refinery, an auto repair shop, or a greasy restaurant then I can understand your need for soap, but for the rest of us the need doesn’t really exist. The theme to this website is “Traditional lifestyles for a modern world”. Often times we think the solutions to our problems need to be complicated, highly technical, and purchased from a company, yet many solutions are already available from traditional sources and can be as simple as removing products from your life rather than adding more.