What happened when I gave up showering and bathing for a week

By Pieter van Zyl
06 May 2017

YOU’s Pieter van Zyl shunned washing for a week to test the theory of a scientist who hasn’t bathed for 14 years.

For eight days I stewed in my own bacteria, shunning soap, showers and deodorant for the sake of this article. And do you know what? It was rather liberating.

Yuck, you’re probably thinking – that’s the reaction I got from most people when I told them what I was up to. But get this: an American scientist hasn’t showered for a staggering 14 years because he wants to “preserve bacteria” on his skin and claims he’s never been healthier or happier.

And, he adds, no one’s ever caught a nasty whiff off him, even in a room with closed windows and doors. Instead of showering, Dr David Whitlock (61) of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston developed a spray that he spritzes on his skin twice a day.

Read more: How often should I be washing my bedsheets?

Appropriately called Mother Dirt, it’s made of live bacteria he says we need to regulate our skin and keep it healthy.

By adding ammonia-oxidising bacteria to our skincare, he believes, we’re replenishing “the necessary ecosystem in our skin’s microbiome” – microbiome is the ecological balance of micro-organisms on the skin.

The mist is odourless, feels like water and does the job far better than a hot shower or soak in the tub, he says.

Whitlock is determined never to shower again – ever. “We are at war with the world of bacteria,” he says. “People get ‘clean’ and ‘sterile’ mixed up.”

The no-shower seed was planted in his mind more than a dozen years ago when his girlfriend asked him why her horse kept rolling around in the dirt. He did some research and discovered the animals rolled to cover their hides with live bacteria that protected the good micro-organisms living there.

If it was good enough for them, he decided, it was good enough for him. Of course, he wouldn’t actually roll about in the dirt – but he’d start cultivating an environment for healthy bacteria to flourish.

Read more: Hygiene experts warn of ‘forgotten surfaces’ that pretty much no one would think to clean

Although Mother Dirt products aren’t available in South Africa I was instructed to give Whitlock’s no-wash experiment a go to see if he was onto something. And so I did.

For a whole week I could wash my hair but nothing below my neck.

DAY 1 Yesterday I warned my five housemates I wouldn’t be showering for eight days, but it’s other people I’m more concerned about. Strangers know nothing about me. Will they think I’m a slimy person if I become a bit whiffy? I also start noticing how many ads there are for soap, shampoo and deodorant, and start obsessing a little. It’s only Day 1 – how will I feel by the end of it all?

DAY 2 All kinds of sayings regarding cleanliness keep popping into my head but I don’t feel that different. I inherited my father’s keen sense of smell yet I can’t detect any bad body odour. However, by the end of the day I feel a little sticky and strange.

DAY 3 I’m starting to get used to my new way of life – in a way I’m beginning to feel lighter, as if a load has been taken off my shoulders. I leave for work 15 minutes earlier because I don’t have my usual hot shower, although it used to wake me up so I take a little longer to focus when I get to work. Oh well, nothing an extra cup of coffee won’t cure. I miss my bath in the evening because it helps me to fall asleep but I unwind by reading in bed longer than usual.

DAY 4 I wake up itching all over and start to fret. Are my bacteria adjusting and coming to life? I try not to think about it. It must be my imagination. On the bus, in shops, even on the streets I feel like an au naturel island in a sea of perfumed people. From today I’m going to start avoiding certain confined spaces – other people’s offices, the conference room and the lifts. No one has said anything but I’ve started to notice a metallic, musky sort of smell – maybe it’s my own personal odour.

DAY 5 When I wake up I hear my housemates showering or bathing and become upset about all the water going down the drain. I feel irritable and bad-tempered all day. I also feel driven to clean something so I give the flat a quick spring-clean and scoop up my two hairless sphynx cats, Essie and Grietjie. They usually have a (very unenthusiastic) bath every fortnight and they aren’t due for one yet but they’re wise enough to keep their complaints to a minimum. The washing machine has also been working overtime for the past few days because sometimes I change outfits twice a day just so I can envelop myself in the comforting fragrance of fabric softener. But I can tell my body is adapting well – it feels less oily and my skin is a lot smoother and softer.

PHOTO: Misha Jordaan PHOTO: Misha Jordaan

DAY 6 I no longer even notice not showering before I leave home and I’m enjoying my unique personal smell more and more. It feels mysterious, like rediscovering a secret. Maybe this is what experts mean when they say our distinctive smell is what attracts people to one another.

DAY 7 All my housemates have the flu but I’m healthy as a horse. Experts say if you don’t wash away your own distinctive colony of bacteria all the time, your immune system will be strengthened – and I’m beginning to believe it.

DAY 8 Nobody has said anything about my smell this week. I’m now allowed to shower and I admit it’s a luxury to stand under steaming water again. I expect the water running off my body to be dirty but it’s clear. As I dry myself I realise my special smell has gone. And I’m going to miss it.  

Advantages of not showering or bathing

It improves your mood, says American scientist Dr David Whitlock, who hasn’t showered for 14 years. Your levels of nitric oxide are higher when you don’t wash away your good bacteria, he says. You’re more likely to feel stress when your nitric oxide is lower.

You’re helping the environment. “There’s a certain beauty in giving up the addiction to cleanliness,” says Melissa Breyer, writer of the blog Organic Beauty. “Not to be unhygienic or anything, but how satisfying not to buy the hype foisted upon us by the corporations that make the things with which we clean ourselves. And manufacturing these products produces chemicals and packaging which pollute the environment.”

You’re healthier. Experts believe modern hygiene is at least partly responsible for increases in ailments such as asthma attacks, childhood diabetes and food allergies. Dr Suretha Kannenberg, a dermatologist at Stellenbosch University, says scientists are discovering more about the microbiome (the ecological balance of micro-organisms on the skin). It consists of good bacteria, viruses, fungi and mites – and this balance is important in protecting you against dangerous organisms, she explains. “People with eczema in particular should steer clear of soap as far as possible, even glycerine soap.” But all within reason, she cautions. “Sweat in itself is an irritant and should be gently washed off with water. Inflammation or infection of the hair follicles can also result from sweat not being washed off after exercise. Like everything in life, balance is the key.”

Who baths and showers the most?

Americans shower more often than the Chinese, British and Japanese but not as often as those living in Brazil and Colombia, who generally shower more than twice a day, an international survey by Euromonitor found. SCA, a manufacturer of hygiene products, found in a survey that Sweden is the only country where men are more likely than women to shower every day. The African continent wasn’t included in these surveys.

Extra sources: treehugger.com, hellogiggles.com, motherboard.vice.com, theatlantic.com

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