Note: this is not an article, but rather my own findings after independent research and experimentation. It's also rather long but, I hope, interesting and important enough to be worth some time. - Sean
About a week ago I came across an interesting discussion about research conducted not by scientists, but by average people at home. The research was to determine what happens if you stop washing your entire body with soap and using shampoo on your hair. I checked out some additional discussions, as well as blog posts and articles and thought I'd report here.
The reasons cited for the experimenting were:
1) Concerns over harsh chemicals in the products. Daily use of soap apparently kills off the beneficial bacteria that is supposed to be all over our skin while also stripping away our body's natural oils which are produced for skin's auto-cleaning properties. Shampoo apparently strips our hair of sebum (the natural oil produced by our scalps for similar cleaning purposes) which in turn can make our hair more brittle, more prone to damage and less easy to manage. Conditioners were marketed along with shampoos to restore moisture to the newly-shampooed hair. Only expensive products available from organic and similar natural-oriented manufacturers avoid the use of harsh chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate and the cocktails that produce the "fragrance" added to the shampoo.
2) Suspicion that the practice is unnatural for humans. Shampoo wasn't introduced until the 1930s. Although various soaps have existed for thousands of years (the lye-based stuff we use today can apparently be credited to the Celts), they were never necessary for basic daily body cleansing. They certainly improved the success rate of surgeries once surgeons were finally convinced that simply "being gentlemen" didn't mean they had no funky stuff on their hands from handling cadavers and the like. That said, those older soaps certainly weren't packed full of the numerous industrial chemicals most modern products contain.
3) Soaps and shampoos are made by corporations that, of course, want our money. It makes sense that they would create products that on one hand clean, but on the other do damage that can be conveniently managed by other products they also happen to make. It also makes sense that they would have researchers and scientists working for them who would promote the necessity of their products' use.
I'll add my own thought that the act of ablution, which the Quran commands to clean oneself before prayer, only mentions clean water or, failing that, clean sand/soil. If water is good enough for God then it must surely be good enough for humans.
And so, emboldened by concerns over artificial products, corporate greed and faulty modern assumptions that recently-introduced practices are natural human activites, some people tried modifying their bathing habits. The "Nopoo" movement appeared, although many of its members are big fans of alternative natural products like shampoo bars and the like (which are probably expensive, but possibly worth the expense). Some people took it to an extreme and use water only, perhaps with a weekly application of conditioner. During showers the body is scrubbed thoroughly with the hands, and the hair and scalp rigorously rinsed with water and massaged to get rid of dandruff and dirt. Some people avoided the use of hot water while washing hair, as it has been reported to make hair more susceptible to damage. Hands are still washed throughout the day, and dental hygiene observed.
People seem to have found the following:
1) Their hair, after a brief one or two-week period of feeling a bit more oily, settles back into its natural state and both looks and feels healthier. Rather than be dirty, it tends to resist dirt better - looking fine at the end of even a busy day and even the following morning. Smell is not an issue either, since the natural sebum on the hair allows just water to rinse off the day's grime. Hair held its form and shape with less need for styling products, as well. In some cases people reported their hair looking so much better that people would inquire about what products they use to get such awesome hair. Answers of "nothing" resulted in astonishment.
2) Skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and acne improved or even went away completely, eliminating the need for expensive skin-care products. Skin dryness and general irritation was also reported to have reduced significantly for many people. Theories were that the elimination of daily chemical scrubs allowed the skin to coat itself properly with body oils and beneficial bacteria, thereby combating the problems (that were probably caused by soaps to begin with).
3) Body odour did not worsen, so long as the person thoroughly washed their body and hair daily with water. Application of underarm deodorant was still recommended and observed by most. Some people chose to continue soaping their posterior region and groin, but others reported the areas self-maintained sufficiently that only water was capable of getting them completely clean. I was surprised to see one report by a couple who announced that body odours actually *decreased* in both of them after several months of water-only bathing. Particular reductions in odour from the male groin region were mentioned. It was supposed that restoring the skin's natural coating of oils and bacteria got rid of most of whatever causes funky smells down there.
Anecdotes about loved ones and friends being unable to notice a difference and reacting with surprise when told about the experiments were plentiful, and I saw no evidence of anyone being accused of being stinkier or dirtier-looking.
Not one to trust what other people say at face value, I decided to try it out for myself. I'm now at the end of my first week of experimenting and have the following to report:
1) My hair does indeed look a bit more full, and feels a little smoother to my fingers. It's also easier for me to keep it combed in place. It doesn't look oily, even though I expected that to be the case based on what other people cautioned. I also haven't noticed an increase in dandruff in spite of no longer using the anti-dandruff shampoo I used regularly before. I actually don't appear to have any dandruff at all at the moment, and my scalp becomes itchy less-frequently than it did before.
2) My skin doesn't look or feel dirtier and aside from my face, which feels like it has become a little oilier, is not oily or grungy anywhere. I am currently experimenting with more frequent face-washes with water but am also waiting to see if things "equalize" over the next week or so, which was suggested as being something that happens. I will take note if my face breaks out in pimples or becomes less pleasant in some other way. Speaking of pimples, the ten or so pimples I almost always have spread across both of my thighs seem to be going away. Could just be happening for unrelated reasons, so I'll keep an eye on it.
3) I've noticed a slight reduction in body odours. Being an overweight man who sweats alot, this has frankly surprised me the most. I'll see if it persists over the course of my second week of experimentation. Also worth noting is that it is currently the winter and both cold and dry here. I'm not sure what would happen in the heat and humidity of summer. I saw one person's claim that they use soap sometimes in the summer, especially after a particularly sweaty day.
So far, I see no reason to stop my experiment. I have no complaints and my wife, who has a nose like a bloodhound and historically enjoys complaining about my various odours, has not voiced a single comment about increased smell.
Could it be that we have all fallen victim to an expert scam? Could "big soap" be tricking us into using products we don't need and that damage our skin and hair sufficiently that we need even *more* products?
Worth considering: Shampoo was introduced in the 1930s, as I mentioned above. Hair conditioners, which had only been invented a few decades earlier for the softening of men's hair and beards (not for women to use interestingly) were then introduced as a necessary partner for shampoo. Prior to around 1900, hair was typically conditioned with natural oils, if at all.
Although bathing oneself is natural, normal and historically backed-up, the daily use of soap is a very, very recent social invention. Although essential for situations like surgery or to clean up after handling filth, soap does not seem essential for basic body cleanliness. Furthermore, the vast majority of skin products, of which there are MANY, seem to exist only to repair the damage caused to skin by our soaps.
Hand-washing with soap several times daily still seems like a good idea, although I'm now wondering even about that. Personally, I want to keep hand-washing with soap because I'm a bit obsessive about doing so.
One final observation: allergies and various skin conditions have been on the rise over the past century, especially recently. People have weaker immune systems and seem to be allergic to just about everything now. Surely the increased use of antibiotics and medicines plays a role, but might not also the use of soaps and shampoos? Ridding our bodies of their natural defense mechanisms (oils and bacteria) might actually be self-destructive behaviour.