What Happens When You Don’t Shower For Five Years
Author James Hamblin hasn’t showered in five years. In this excerpt of his new book, he recounts his approach to personal hygiene.
The following is an excerpt from Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin.
Clean: The New Science of Skin
Five years ago, I stopped showering.
At least, by most modern definitions of the word. I still get my hair wet occasionally, but I quit shampooing or conditioning, or using soap, except on my hands. I also gave up the other personal care products—hand sanitizers and exfoliants and antibiotic deodorants—that I had always associated with being clean.
I’m not here to recommend this approach to everyone. In a lot of ways it was terrible. But it also changed my life.
I’d like to say I stopped showering for some noble, virtuous reason—like because an average shower uses 17 gallons of perfectly good water. Or because that water then gets filled with petroleum-based detergents and soaps made from palm oil grown in the rainforest. The body-care products shipped from around the world contain antimicrobial preservatives and plastic micro-beads that end up in our lakes and streams and make their way into our food and groundwater and back into our own bodies. Aisles upon aisles of these products are sold in pharmacies around the world in plastic bottles that will never biodegrade, and that end up floating together like islands in the oceans. Islands that whales try, tragically, to mate with.
The last bit about the whales is not true (hopefully). But the rest of these are global effects of daily bathroom habits on the scale of 7 billion people that I hadn’t really considered when I first stopped showering.
For me, it started simply. It wasn’t even really about showering. I had just moved from LA to DC to New York, where everything is smaller and more expensive and more difficult. I’d reoriented a career practicing medicine to essentially start over as a journalist. I was transitioning from a profession that promised a half-million-dollar salary into a globally imploding job market. I had moved across the country and was back at the bottom of a professional ladder, in a studio apartment with no clear path. A mentor told me not to start climbing again unless I knew my ladder was against the right wall.
He didn’t mean, “stop showering.” I don’t think. But I saw this as a moment to take stock of everything in my life. In the process of this existential audit, I considered the possessions and habits that I might at least try going without. I cut back on caffeine and alcohol, disconnected my cable and internet, and sold my car—limiting anything that could be an overhead, recurring, mindless cost. I toyed with living in a van, because Instagram made it look so glamorous, but was discouraged adamantly by my girlfriend and everyone else in my life.
Even though I wasn’t spending a lot of money on soap and shampoo, I did think about the net amount of time that went into using them. Behavioral economists and productivity experts will sometimes quantify the additive effects of small things to help people break habits. For example, If you smoke a pack a day in New York, you spend almost $5,000 a year. Over the next 20 years, quitting could save $174,547.63. If you stopped getting so much Starbucks, as I understand it, you could have a second home in Bermuda. If you spent 30 minutes per day showering and applying products, over the course of a long life—100 years, for ease of math—you would spend 18,250 hours washing. At that rate, not showering frees up about three years of your life.
As my girlfriend put it, I smelled “like a person.” Initial skepticism turned to enthusiasm.
Friends and family suggested that I would have trouble enjoying the extra time because I would feel gross, unkempt. My mother worried I’d get sick from some germs I failed to clean off. I would miss the basic humanity of the routines that compel us to take time for ourselves, and that give us at least some semblance of power to present ourselves as we wish the world would see us. There was a chance I’d miss the simple ritual of taking a nice warm shower and emerging each morning like a new person ready to face the day.
But what if none of this happened? What if I actually got fewer colds, and my skin looked better, and I found other, better routines and rituals? What if all those products in our bathrooms—shampoos to remove oils from our hair, and conditioners to replace them; soaps to remove oils from our skin, and moisturizers to replace them—were mostly effective in getting us to buy more products? How do you really know if you’ve never gone more than a couple days without showering?
“I know what it’s like to not shower,” goes the most common skeptical reply to my story, “and it’s not good.” To which I say, of course. I know what it’s like to go without coffee, and it’s not good. I know what it’s like to go into a party where I know no one, and it’s not good. I know what it’s like to try to run a marathon without training, and it’s not good. But I also know what it’s like to slowly use less and less caffeine, and to come to feel at home in new social circles, and to build up to running 26 miles without yearning for the sweet embrace of death.
The more gradually a human body eases into these endeavors, the easier they are to do and to enjoy. Changing daily cleaning habits could be thought of the same way. Over the course of months, and then years, as I gradually used less and less, I started to need less and less. Or, at least, to believe I did. My skin slowly became less oily, and I got fewer patches of eczema. I didn’t smell like pine trees or lavender, but I also didn’t smell like the oniony “body odor” that used to happen when my armpits, used to being plastered with deodorant, suddenly went a day without it. As my girlfriend put it, I smelled “like a person.” Initial skepticism turned to enthusiasm.
If you spent 30 minutes per day showering and applying products, over the course of a long life—100 years, for ease of math—you would spend 18,250 hours washing.
I am under no illusions that I never smelled bad. But it happened less and less regularly. And I started to become aware of patterns. Any breakout or unpleasant scent I could usually trace to something else: stress, sleep deprivation, generally not thriving. Out at my family’s tree farm in Wisconsin or on vacation hiking in Yellowstone, when I might go for days without indoor plumbing, I was almost guaranteed to smell and look decent. In the indolence of winter days barely moving except to get to the office, I felt squalid and smelled accordingly. Essentially, I became more attuned to what my body was “trying to tell me.” It seemed to be telling me not so much “wash me” as “go outside, move around, be social, et cetera.” (My body still sometimes trails off and says, “et cetera.”)
I was able to stop showering in large part because I was born with extra credit in the currency of acceptability in America: I’m a white male who looks generally healthy. I’m relatively young and can afford to buy clothes that aren’t tattered, and to wash them regularly. I’m employed and literate and fluent in the dominant local language. I move through the world sheltered from expectations to look a certain way in order to be perceived as competent and professional and welcome in a restaurant. Even when I am not showered or groomed, I’m likely to still be seen as clean.
In the course of working on this book I also got a degree in public health and finished up a residency in preventive medicine. This field is interested in avoiding quick, superficial fixes that leave bigger problems unaddressed, and instead focuses on how to build sustainable lifestyles and communities that optimize health in the most holistic sense of the word. This means different things to different people, but it’s always associated with a certain level of freedom—especially financial and temporal—that allows people to live well, and to focus on relationships and meaningful work.
That philosophy made me curious about the industry that has, for hundreds of years, sold us promises of health, happiness, beauty, and all manner of acceptance based on literal superficial fixes. I ended up on a multi-year journey through the history and science of soap, and all the fortunes and products it spawned, right up to the modern skin-care industry. After talking to microbiologists, allergists, geneticists, ecologists, estheticians, bar-soap enthusiasts, venture capitalists, historians, allergists, Amish people, international aid workers, theologians, and straight-up scam artists, I came away with the understanding that we are at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the basic conception of what it means to be clean.
The perfectly human instincts to protect, maintain, and distinguish ourselves are also easily manipulated. During the decades we spent under the presumption that eradicating microbial life from our bodies was simply good, we were oblivious to the effects of this practice on the trillions of microbes that live normally on our skin. They are not simply harmless, but important to the skin’s function. They help teach our immune systems how to respond (or not to respond) to external triggers. The skin microbiome is the interface between our bodies and the natural world—partly us and partly not. Our growing understanding of this blurred barrier of self and other has the potential to revolutionize how we think about our skin and everything around and underneath it.
At this inflection point for the soap and skin care industries, this book offers the option to simply do less—to think of our skin as an ecosystem to maintain rather than an outer barrier that should be pristine. It’s an invitation to question which of the things we do to our skin are actually necessary, which are at best wasteful and which are truly harmful.
There is reason now, too, to take stock of our personal philosophies of purity and plurality—to decide whether we embrace the complexity of the ecological world around us and on our skin, or whether we continue to accept what the soap-sellers have taught us to believe about our own inadequacy and vulnerability, and isolate ourselves from the vital exposures that keep our immune systems strong.
Excerpted from Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin. Excerpted with permission of Riverhead Books (July 21, 2020).