Please leave, and take your skin microbiome with you

3 minute read

This physician needs to take a long, hot bath with himself.

Call us fastidious, but The Back Page is quite a fan of daily showering. We especially like it on other people.

More fool us, according to this NPR interview – presumably done over the phone ­– with Atlantic columnist and Yale lecturer Dr James Hamblin, who gave up showering and using deodorant five years ago and insists we’re really overdoing this hygiene thing.

He hastens to add that he’s still washing his hands “all the time, which remains an extremely important way to prevent communicable diseases”. Which sits oddly with his previous comment that “evolutionarily, why would we be so disgusting that we need constant cleaning?”

Dr Hamblin is evidently not a cat person.

He believes we are neglecting one of our most important microbiomes, that of the skin. The organ was thought to be the barrier that protected us from the outside world, he says, but now studies suggest it is the critters.

Critters like the Demodex mite, which infests the faces of adolescents and adults and will now infest your nightmares.

I live on your face.

Dr Hamblin has a new book out, Clean: The New Science of Skin, in which he surveys the rise of our culture of cleaning. Hygiene is still necessary to signal you’re safe to be around, he tells NPR – “Removal of mucus, vomit, blood feces … any behaviour that signals to people “I am thoughtful about not transmitting diseases to you”…” – but most of the rest is just signalling your wealth.

He’s not telling people to do what he did, just that they could do less: “Your health will not suffer. And your body is not so disgusting that you need to upend your microbial ecosystem every day.”

Condemning people for stinking is just judgy, he says – “I’m trying to push back against the sense of there being some universal standard of normalcy.”

He concedes that at first, yes he smelt bad. But then his natural skin ecosystem rebalanced, and now he doesn’t, “At least, to my nose. I’ve asked friends to smell me, and they insist that it’s all good. (Though they could be allied in an attempt to ruin me.)”

Or they’re being polite, James.

As we head into summer and more people go back to the office, on the train and bus, we hope this doesn’t become the new wellness gospel – but at least social distancing will still be good for something.

If you see something stupid, say something stupid … send your bath bombs to

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