James Hamblin Has Been Soap-Free for 5 Years

And his skin's microbiome loves him for it.

man taking a shower

@annewusti via Twenty20

James Hamblin is a name that pops up every few years on this website. The medical doctor-turned-professional-writer has made a name for himself by ceasing to use soap on his body. (Hands are the exception.) What began as an experiment five years ago has become Hamblin's defining feature – mainly because it's been such a smashing success and few people can imagine doing it themselves. They view Hamblin with a mix of awe and respect and horror.

In a piece for the Guardian, Amy Fleming catches up with Hamblin on the five-year anniversary of being the notorious "soap dodger" and on the occasion of his new book being published, "Clean: The New Science of Skin." Aside from people's moralizing judgements – "It's one of the few remaining things for which we feel fine telling someone that they’re gross. It's amazing to me, honestly" – Hamblin's doing just fine. His skin has never looked or felt better. He may not smell like a bottled drugstore product, but he has no skin problems, nor does he need moisturizer or feel itchy. The reason? His microbiome is happy.

Microbiome refers to the colonies of trillions of microbes that live on our skin and in the orifices of our body. Microbiologists are only just beginning to understand how complex the relationship is between these little bugs and our bodies, but they do know it matters a lot:

"These include their starring roles in developing our immune systems, protecting us from pathogens (by creating antimicrobial substances and competing with them for space and resources) and lessening the likelihood of autoimmune conditions such as eczema. So, there is a growing awareness that scrubbing them off, along with the natural oils on which they feed, or dousing them with antibacterial products may not be the best idea after all."

Eradicating our microbiomes with detergents and scrubbing every day in the shower is rather pointless because they just come back anyway, within a few hours. When they repopulate, though, the microbial species can become unbalanced and produce more of the microbes that result in strong odor. But, as Hamblin explained back in 2017, quitting soap allows your ecosystem to reach a steady state: "You stop smelling bad. I mean, you don't smell like rosewater or Axe Body Spray, but you don't smell like B.O., either. You just smell like person."

What's fascinating, too, is to think about the power of smell in human interactions, and how this has largely been neglected in a soap-obsessed culture where it's only considered acceptable to smell like synthetic products. Hamblin spoke to Fleming about this, suggesting that "natural smells are far more nuanced and informative than we give them credit for." He himself noticed a difference in the way he smelled when stressed (it was worse).

[Hamblin] interviewed a researcher who could train dogs to sniff out cancer in humans, while lovers he spoke to told him they thought the way their partner smelled naturally was good. He writes: "The hundreds of subtle volatile chemical signals we emit may play roles in communicating with other people (and other species) in ways we’re just beginning to understand."

It's interesting to think that, perhaps, we humans might be able to sense more about each other if we were able to smell someone's true body odor. It would certainly put us back in touch with our animal origins, a reality that many humans would happily deny; as one commenter said, "If cleanliness is next to godliness, so is being odorless."

It was good to read an update on Hamblin because I've thought frequently about his anti-soap stance over the years. It is one of a few significant influences that have led me to cut back drastically on the skincare products I use, the others being toxic ingredients and wasteful plastic packaging. I will now often do a soapless rinse in the shower, or use minimal soap only on select parts of the body (or to get rid of greasy sunscreen residue), and never wash my hair more than once a week. I rarely need moisturizer, though that tends to be seasonal, living here in Canada where indoor air is exceedingly dry during winter.

If soap-free living intrigues you, you should give it a try, but don't go cold turkey. Hamblin credits his success to his "slow fade" approach, where he phased out products over time: "As I gradually used less and less, I started to need less and less." Maintaining a certain level of personal hygiene still matters, of course, such as regular rinsing (especially after sweaty exercise), brushing one's teeth, and wearing clean clothes. This is not an excuse for neglect.