In a new book titled Clean, Dr James Hamblin, a preventative medicine doctor, Yale School of Public Health lecturer and staff writer for The Atlantic, calls into question our society’s obsession with skincare regimens and argues that our habit of showering daily may actually be to our detriment, even during a global pandemic. Hamblin himself has not taken a proper shower in over five years, and reports that he’s doing just fine and smells, well… like a “human.”
I have to admit that my initial reaction after reading about Hamblin’s experiment was pure horror. As an avid-shower taker, the thought of forgoing my daily (sometimes bi-daily…) ritual of lathering up under a steamy current seemed mind-boggling. But the more acquainted I got with Hamblin’s showerless universe, the more I warmed up to his message. Besides, Hamblin is explicit about the fact that he isn’t encouraging his readers to go “cold turkey” and give up showers altogether; rather, he wants to acquaint us with previously unknown aspects of dermatology, and, most importantly, get us to question the necessity and reassess the consequences behind our skincare regimens, which he ascribes to centuries of social-conditioning and decades of brilliant marketing ploys.
Hamblin began his experiment a few years ago out of sheer curiosity about what would happen if he cut back on showers after he comprehended the environmental and potential health consequences of a 20-minute daily shower—which adds up to roughly two years of a person’s life on average (gasp).
At the core of Hamblin’s research is a previously unknown ecosystem, which gradually attracts the attention of scientists, referred to as ‘skin microbiome’. This ecosystem is composed of trillions of microbes (bacteria) that live on our skin and feed off of oily secretions and sebaceous glands located at the base of our hair follicles. In a 2016 article for The Atlantic, Hamblin states that our regular appliance of detergents (soaps, skin cleansers, etc.) to our skin obliterates the balance between skin oils and the bacteria that live on our skin.
“We’re really just starting to understand the depths of the importance of what those microbes are doing and how to keep that microbiome healthy. But it does seem clear that the answer is not to try to simply clear cut the forest as much as possible,” Hamblin said in an interview for As It Happens, adding that a potential solution would be to allow the microbiome to equilibrate.
So how did we end up tethered to innumerable skincare and hygiene products that we regard as absolute necessities? To a great extent, Hamblin says, this is a result of persistent ads inculcating in us the idea that we must drain our skin from oil and then replenish it with moisturisers. “It is a brilliant story of marketing,” Hamblin told As It Happens host Carol Off. “It’s basically a process of segmenting and growth by the big corporations that have sold us these things and found ways to make these products slightly differentiated so that they are maybe a little different colour, a little different scent, a little different concentration, and making whole new products out of them.”
In Clean, Hamblin delves deeper into the roots of our obsession with hygiene and discovers that in addition to cunning marketing strategies, this phenomenon is predicated on historically scientific interests in disease prevention that devolved into classist and racist views of cleanliness. “Throughout the history of the idea of cleanliness, it has been used maliciously to justify racism and xenophobia, and we’ve called other groups unclean since before we had germ theory as a way of just differentiating ourselves and justifying plunder,” said Hamblin.
According to some estimates, the booming skincare industry is predicted to be worth nearly $200 billion by 2025. But as skincare products proliferate in homes across the world and skincare regimens morph into somewhat of a religion, we must pause for a moment and ask ourselves, are they truly worth our investment? According to Hamblin—not quite. “[T]here are plenty of people out there who kind of get into these cycles of having flares of acne or eczema and trying to, you know, use more and more products and clean more and more aggressively. And there’s a big segment of that population who finds that, actually, things get better when you taper off,” he says.
Then there are the environmental consequences of our shower-filled lives and elaborate skincare routines—the excessive water usage, plastic waste, and the too-often-ignored but rapidly growing pollution of oceans and bodies of water caused by our everyday detergents.
Naturally, anyone contemplating Hamblin’s showerless lifestyle would be instantly worried about the issue of smell, something he does not discount in his research. “At first, I was an oily, smelly beast,” Hamblin confesses. But once the equilibrium of his microbiome has been restored, the rank subsided: “I’ve asked friends to smell me, and they insist that it’s all good,” he writes.
When asked about his thoughts on hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamblin iterated that while he strongly advocates for frequent hand washing and using precautions such as wearing a face covering and avoiding touching our faces or rubbing our eyes, he sticks by his assertion that showering less could make us healthier in the long run. In fact, he sees the pandemic as the ultimate time to experiment—“a lot of people are working from home, working partly remotely, spending a lot more time at home as it is, and being more relaxed about…. self-care practices that weren’t really necessary in the first place.”
But Hamblin doesn’t recommend being hasty and says people should take it one shower at a time. Most of all, he would like us to start questioning our beliefs and perceptions around hygiene and think more critically about the need for daily showers and “the endless marketing” of skin and hair products. Why not start by skipping tomorrow morning’s shower?
You’ve heard of social media influencers, but have you ever heard of a social media influencer among the gastroenterology community? Probably not, and yet it is certainly a thing. Dr Austin Chiang is a gastroenterologist who studied at Harvard, but he also is the first Chief Medical Social Media Officer at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia. In other words, part of his job is to get doctors and other health professionals on social media to drown out health misinformation by posting large quantities of posts that are fact checked and, well, not fake. The idea of doctors having a presence on social media sounds unconventional at first, so it makes sense that people might wonder why exactly Dr Chiang’s job was created.
Just like fake news, fake health news come mainly from social media accounts sharing information that is not based on any medical research. And just like much of the speculative and factually inaccurate content shared on social networks, many people ultimately believe it. This is where Dr Chiang’s accounts come as a remedy. His main platform is Instagram but you can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. On Instagram, Dr Chiang has more than 22,000 followers—making him the most followed medical influencer outside the world of plastic surgery and nutritional well-being—and his content represents his two favourite things: medicine and social media.
Every few days Dr Chiang posts a picture of himself with captions about the latest research or advice to patients trying to navigate between real information and rumours. And where do those rumours come from? According to Dr Chiang, from public figures like the 1.9 million Instagram followers and #1 NY Times Bestselling Author Anthony William, also known as the Medical Medium, famous for his book Celery Juice: The Most Powerful Medicine Of Our Time Healing Millions Worldwide.
When looking at William’s online presence, especially his Instagram account, many questions come to mind, mainly how someone with no medical background has harnessed so much credibility by the public. William’s entire Instagram feed looks like a bad infomercial for a blender or an eczema miracle cream and the consistent use of #healing makes for a cocktail of unease and suspicion. Call me crazy, but I’d like to think that if you proclaim yourself as a ‘medical medium’ without any diploma to show for yourself, you are most likely a crook that sees himself as a spiritual saviour.
Anti-vaccination content is another example of fake health news spreading through social media, with communities and groups preaching to anyone willing to believe that vaccination causes autism—a theory that has never been medically proven. Some people go as far as giving a ‘cure’ for autism in the form of an industrial-strength bleach.
Bearing witness to this kind of content online, Dr Chiang’s CEO Steve Klasko came up with the idea of creating a well-needed medical presence on social media with the help of Dr Chiang’s Instagram and hashtags like #verifyhealthcare and #dontgoviral. The solution to this frightening misinformation is providing young people with the right information, and allowing them to access it easily, which means publishing it on social media, where it is known that under 35s spend a large chunk of their time and where they get their news and information.
At the moment, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s goal is to have approximately 3,000 doctors participating on social media, which sounds like a good start. Help from the government (or social media companies like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) in regulating false information could also soon be a necessity. Until then, don’t believe everything you read on the internet and please stay away from Medical Medium.