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Clean

The New Science of Skin

By James Hamblin
15-minute read
Audio available
Clean by James Hamblin

Clean (2020) explains why overwashing is harmful. It damages our largest organ: the skin. Medical doctor and journalist James Hamblin explores the reasons why we have become so radical about personal hygiene, and explains why we might need to rethink our approach.

  • Anyone who wants to learn more about skin care and immune system health
  • People interested in how advertising has influenced modern lifestyle choices
  • Hygiene minimalists looking to be vindicated

James Hamblin is a staff writer for The Atlantic, a lecturer in public health policy at Yale University, and a physician specializing in public health and preventative medicine.

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Clean

The New Science of Skin

By James Hamblin
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Clean by James Hamblin
Synopsis

Clean (2020) explains why overwashing is harmful. It damages our largest organ: the skin. Medical doctor and journalist James Hamblin explores the reasons why we have become so radical about personal hygiene, and explains why we might need to rethink our approach.

Key idea 1 of 9

Modern ideas of “cleanliness” have led us to overwash ourselves.

Five years before he started writing Clean, author James Hamblin quit showering. He still washed his hands and occasionally got his body wet, but otherwise, he ditched all personal care products. This was part of his “existential audit.” Hamblin had just left his secure, well-paid job as a doctor to become a journalist, and he wanted to try giving up certain habits to save money and time.

It took a few months for his body to become accustomed to the change. And when it did, he noticed that his skin became less oily, and that he now had fewer eczema breakouts. His aroma wasn’t that of a field of daisies, but, as his girlfriend put it, he now smelled “like a person.” 

And what’s more, he found that most skin researchers he spoke with also took a minimalist approach to showering habits.

The key message here is: Modern ideas of “cleanliness” have led us to overwash ourselves.

Developments in medicine and technology mean we spend more time indoors and clean ourselves more often. We are far less likely to die of an infectious disease. But rates of chronic disease have skyrocketed. 

Some of these chronic conditions may well be linked to washing ourselves too often. One example is atopic dermatitis, or eczema. It makes the skin red and itchy. 

Sandy Skotnicki, a dermatologist and professor at the University of Toronto, advises patients who experience eczema flares to forgo hot showers and throw away soaps and gels. These products are, after all, mostly made of detergents that can be harmful to the skin. She recommends that patients simply wash their armpits, groin, and feet. 

This “soap minimalism” helps the skin do what it does best: maintain equilibrium. It has evolved to do this over millions of years. Scientists are now studying how microbes which inhabit the skin – its microbiome – work with our environments. 

New research has revealed more about the role of the apocrine sweat glands. They sit in the groin and armpits and produce the oily secretions that cause body odor. But they also do something incredibly useful: they sustain the trillions of microbes that live in and on us. 

It might sound gross, but these microbes may actually act as an invisible top layer of our skin. They foster its dynamic relationship with the outside world.

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