Since we dirty buggers have already made the case against antibacterial soap, it's time to consider the case against all soap. And showers. Basically all hygiene as we know it in the 21st century. In the latest New York Times Magazine, Julia Scott gives up soap for a mist of bacteria usually found in dirt—and finds her skin has never been better.
It's not as kooky as it sounds. (Really.) While we have been conditioned to lather, foam, and scrub every inch of ourselves with soap, it's only recently that scientists have realized killing all the bacteria on our skin may not be such a good thing. Bacteria naturally flourish on the skin, most of them harmless, and imbalances in the skin microbiome are linked to all sorts of problems from acne to eczema.
That's why the cosmetics aisle is, like the yogurt aisle, now stocked with probiotic treatments and bacterial extracts. Scott goes one step further than probiotic face creams in her NYT Magazine piece. She chucks out her entire hygiene regimen and sprays herself twice a day with AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist—fancy name for a spray bottle of bacteria.
David Whitlock, the inventor of AO+, came up with the idea while watching horses roll around in the dirt. (Promising start, isn't it?) The dirt turned out to contain bacteria that gobble up ammonia, which is found in abundance in our sweat. But this natural anti-sweat bacteria, Nitrosomonas eutropha, turns out to be a delicate creature, easily killed by chemicals common in our soap—so soap has got to go. This is how Scott describes the hygiene regimen of the people behind AO+:
The chairman of the company's board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin's bacterial colony to do the rest. I met these men. I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being "unclean" in either the visual or olfactory sense.
Soon enough, Scott decides to try it for herself. You should read about her experience in full, but the short answer is that her skin has never been better—smoother, softer, breakout-free.
The takeaway is not necessarily that we should be rolling in dirt or even rushing out to buy AO+. (Cosmetics are loosely regulated, but the creators of AO+ are just now filing with the FDA to test it as a drug.) It's worth reflecting on what we consider "clean." The scent of soap, the mintiness of toothpaste—thousands of ads have conditioned us to associate it all with cleanliness. But what if being clean just means having a healthy skin microbiome? [New York Times]
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