On Soap-Free Living

A woman in a towel and robe puts her hand in the shower to test water.

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Most people are horrified to hear that Jackie Hong hasn't used soap in 7 years, but she might be the smart one.

Jackie Hong hasn’t used soap on her body in seven years. It all started when she met a high school art teacher who told her he hadn’t washed with soap in two decades. Her initial reaction was disgust, but when he pointed out that he didn’t smell, it got her thinking and questioning the importance our society places on soap, aside from handwashing. Why are we so obsessed with lathering, scrubbing, and sterilizing our skin? Could there actually be madness behind all this method?

In an article for the Toronto Star, Hong documents the growing body of science that supports her decision to live soap-free. Researchers point out that inhabitants of developed nations live in relatively clean times, thanks to vaccinations, improved public health works, the eradication of many dangerous pathogens, and indoor plumbing. There is no need to fret so intensely over potential illness.

Even raw sewage, as disgusting as it may seem, is “relatively safe,” says University of Chicago surgery professor Jack Gilbert. (I’ve suspected this for a while. If feces were half as dangerous as we make it out to be, many a diaper-changing parent would have since perished.)

Hong cites Gilbert in her article:

“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.”

It’s silly, in fact, to imagine sterilizing the bacteria that live on your skin because they’ll always come back. Within ten minutes of exiting the shower, they repopulate. By choosing not to soap up, individuals like Hong are doing their skin a favor by not forcing it to repopulate constantly and not drying it out, which in turn requires moisturizing, in the form of (chemical-laden) lotion.

‘Why are you washing if you’re not dirty? Stop washing if you’re not dirty.’

A young Black woman with a towel on her head looks in the mirror before a shower.

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Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Division of Dermatology, has a great analogy for what washing with soap does to human 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. Soap [which binds to fat and grease] is going to remove it more, because it’s quite harsh... 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.’”

Hong, who shampoos her hair only once a month and is experimenting with vinegar rinses, insists that her soap-free lifestyle is not a rejection of personal hygiene, contrary to what most people might think. (She does wash her hands regularly with soap.)

I agree with her, based on my own experience giving up shampoo, although it can get annoying having to navigate other people’s skewed perceptions of what it means to be clean. Reactions to my latest water-only hair-washing experiment have ranged from outright horror to fascination, but never real understanding for why I’d do such a thing.

Change is uncomfortable, but it seems that the evidence is piling up. The more we lather up and surround ourselves with sterilizing chemicals, ironically, the sicker, more fragile, and more allergic we get.