When James Hamblin tells people he has not used soap in the shower for five years, they tend not to hold back in expressing their disgust. “It’s one of the few remaining things for which we feel fine telling someone that they’re gross,” he says. “It’s amazing to me, honestly.”
Yet despite people’s “clearly moralising judgments”, Hamblin is no hygiene slouch. Even pre-pandemic, he made a point of washing his hands with soap. He is, after all, a doctor who lectures at the Yale School of Public Health and a medical writer and podcaster for the US magazine the Atlantic. At 37, he looks so youthful that he still gets compared to the fictional child doctor Doogie Howser.
But eschewing soap on your pits and bits does raise awkward technical questions, more on which after some context. Hamblin’s minimalist showering habits evolved gradually, after he relocated from California to a studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York, to pursue a writing career. He needed to save time, money and space. Simultaneously, he says: “I started learning about emerging microbiome science and decided to try going all-out for a bit.”
Even if you have not yet read up on our microbiomes – the trillions of microbes that lead symbiotic lives with humans, colonising our skin and our guts – you may have spotted vague statements such as “microbiome-gentle” printed on bottles of shower gel. This because microbiologists – and brands – are learning more and more about the complex relationship we have with our germs. 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.