A Year Ago, James Hamblin Quit Showering. What's He Doing Now?

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CC BY 2.0. Silke Remmery

The Atlantic writer challenged the notion that scented means clean.

Last year, I wrote about James Hamblin’s experiment in quitting the shower. The writer and senior editor at The Atlantic had been researching a U.S. company that produces bacteria for spraying on one’s skin, in place of washing with soap and water, when it dawned on him that his definition of what constitutes ‘clean’ might be off. The idea behind the bacterial product is to equilibrate the microbes that live on and inside the human body, rather than stripping them away. While Hamblin wasn’t ready to go so far as spray himself with bacteria, it got him thinking:

“Maybe it doesn’t make sense to be destroying this ecosystem by scrubbing ourselves with soap every single day.”
Hamblin’s experiment has lasted a year now, so Guardian writer Chitra Ramaswamy checked in to see how the shower-free life is going. Contrary to what many may think, he has not relapsed. He told her:
“It was a very gradual process. I weaned myself off it over six months and found myself getting less grimy, oily and smelly. I’m vigilant about washing my hands. I will rinse off if I’m drenched in sweat after a run and need to be at dinner in ten minutes, or if I have terrible bedhead and look unprofessional. Other than that, basically nothing.”

While Hamblin’s commitment is baffling in our soap- and scent-obsessed world, there is science to back it up. Research has shown that showering disrupts the delicate balance of bacteria inhabiting the human body. Ramaswamy mentions an Amazonian tribe in Venezuela called the Yanomami, whose long-unwashed members have been found to host “the most diverse constellation of microbes ever discovered in humans.”

The harsh chemicals in conventional cleansers strip the skin of natural oils, leaving it tight and dry after a ‘good’ scrubbing. It then produces more oil and bacteria to replace what was washed away, but, unknowingly to many, this can backfire:

“When the bacteria washed off by soap repopulate, they tend to favour microbes which produce an odor – yes, too-frequent showering may actually make you smell more.” (The Guardian)

Does Hamblin smell? Well, it can’t be too bad because he has a girlfriend. (This was the big question posed by Grist in its initial story about the experiment.) Apparently his girlfriend says he has a smell, but not an offensive one: “I smell like a person, instead of smelling like a product.”

The human smell deserves more credit than it currently gets. Just because a person does not shower (or wash hair with shampoo, in my case) does not automatically mean she or he will reek. As long as an individual engages in some level of self-grooming, such as rinsing, brushing teeth, wearing clean clothes, etc., one’s body should not smell like anything other than "person."

While I’m not yet ready to give up showering completely, writing about Hamblin’s experiment has certainly changed my approach over the past year. I am more willing to skip showers occasionally, and I use soap only for “pits and bits,” never rubbing it over my entire body. Have I seen a difference? Only that I rarely have to use moisturizer anymore because my skin doesn’t seem to dry out like it used to. It's one less step in my beauty routine, and I'm fine with that.