The great unwashed

2011-01-21 13:05

A daily shower is a deeply ­ingrained habit. Most people would no sooner disclose they had not showered in days than admit infidelity.

But Jenefer Palmer (55) of Malibu, California, cheerfully ­acknowledged recently that she doesn’t shower or shampoo daily, and doesn’t use deodorant. Ever.

No, she does not work from home in pyjamas.

In fact, Palmer, the chief executive of Osea, an ­organic skin-care line, often travels to meet business contacts at the five-star luxury hotels where her line is sold.

They might be surprised to read that Palmer, a petite, put-together brunette, showers “no more than three times a week”, she says, and less if she hasn’t been “working out vigorously”.

She contends that a soapy washcloth “under her arms, between her legs and under her feet” is all she needs to get “really clean”.

On the go, underarm odour is wiped away with a sliced lemon.

Defying a culture of clean that has prevailed at least since the 1940s, a contingent of renegades deliberately forgo daily bathing and other gold standards of ­personal hygiene, like frequent ­shampooing and deodorant use.

To the converted, there are many reasons to cleanse less and smell more like yourself.

“We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” says Katherine ­Ashenburg (65), the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized ­History.

Since the advent of cars and ­labour-saving machines, she ­continues, “we have never needed to wash less, and we have never done it more”.

“I’m going to sound like dirty Katherine in this article,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter. I’m still ­invited to dinner parties!”

Retention of the skin’s natural oils and water conservation are two reasons Palmer and others cite for skipping a daily shower.

Some have concluded that deodorant is unnecessary after forgetting it once with no social repercussions.

Shampooing as little as possible can help retain moisture in dry locks and enhance curls, argue ­adherents of the practice; and for some men, it’s about looking ­fashionably unkempt.

Resist the urge to recoil at this swath of society because they may be onto something.

Of late, ­researchers have discovered that just as the gut contains good ­bacteria that help it run more ­efficiently, our skin brims with beneficial germs that we might not want to wash down the drain.

“Good bacteria are educating your own skin cells to make your own antibiotics,” says Dr Richard Gallo, chief of the dermatology ­division at the University of ­California, San Diego, and “they produce their own antibiotics that kill off bad bacteria”.

Some people have long ­complained that showering too much makes their skin drier or more prone to flare-ups of, say, eczema, and Gallo says that scientists are just beginning to understand why.

“It’s not just removing the lipids and oils on your skin that’s drying it out,” he says.

It could be “removing some of the good bacteria that help maintain a healthy balance of skin”.

But Elaine Larson, a professor at the Columbia University School of Nursing, cautions that people who come into contact with many strangers should ­consider soaping up.

Whatever the motivation, personal cleanliness worldwide has long been big business. Widespread advertisements address (and arguably generate) anxiety about body odour.

And they seem to work: adults younger than 24 in the US use deodorant and antiperspirant more than nine times a week, but even for older age groups, ­usage never falls ­below an average of once a day, according to Mintel, a market research firm.

Regina ­Corso, a senior vice-president of the Harris Poll, says 93% of adults in the US shampoo almost daily. But reliable statistics for how often Americans shower are hard to come by.

“People are going to be hesitant to say they’re not showering every day,” she says.

But Todd Felix, a clean-cut-looking actor and online producer at Sony who lives in Los Angeles, was happy to report that he finds deodorant unnecessary and antiperspirant absurd. (To his mind, the latter is akin to covering your pores in cling film.)

To keep his body odour in check, he takes a daily shower with an unscented Dove body wash, usually after gym.

But Felix, who is in his early 30s and doesn’t want to be taken for a hippie, is cautious about disclosing that he doesn’t wear underarm protection to people that he dates.

The few times Felix has mentioned on a date that he does without deodorant, he says, things quickly turned, well, sour.

“It’s weird, but I don’t smell,” Felix will announce. Then, he says: “The comment is always, ‘You think you don’t smell’.” (Felix admitted that he lives in horror of having the rare fetid day.)

But Matt Merkel, an engineer, is sure he smells just fine.

How? ­Recently, Merkel (29) told his ­mother and sister that he gave up the old Speed Stick as a teenager, and they were shocked.

“I was like, ‘Smell me, I don’t care!’,” he told them, adding: “They probably just thought I was still 13 or 14, and doing that because somebody told me to.”

The world’s, and particularly the US’s, custom of rigorous cleanliness was in full swing by the second world war, at which point most homes had ­acquired a full ­bathroom, says ­Ashenburg, the author of The Dirt on Clean, and it intensified with post-war marketing efforts.

But standards are ­relaxing, at least in some corners. An article in Parenting magazine’s November 2010 issue suggests that stressed mothers need not shower daily, stating reassuringly: “The air is drier in the winter, which means you need your skin’s natural ­lubricants.”

More boldly, on a Facebook fan page for the book Run Like a Mother, a bible for active parents, Bethany Hoffmann Becker, a 32-year-old paralegal from Hutto, ­Texas, posted this week: “I get a lot of my runs in on my lunch break at work so I am all about the baby wipes :) I just shower ­before going to bed.”

Meanwhile, sales of dry shampoo – a spray used to prolong the time between wet lathers and perhaps showers – “more than doubled” from 2007 to 2009 in the US, ­according to the NPD Group, a ­market research firm.

Recently, the Investment ­Banking Club board, whose ­membership is made up of 20% of the students at Columbia University’s business school, sent a ­“friendly reminder” of some ­“personal hygiene basics” to ­members seeking jobs.

One commandment: “Carry ­antiperspirant with you if you are worried about sweating.”

Indeed, those who try laissez-faire hygiene need to brace themselves for negative feedback.

Tara Freymoyer (26), a property manager in Birdsboro, gave up underarm protection after she started dating Merkel, an abstainer.

She has friends who “wrinkle their noses and say ‘you’re gross’.” But Freymoyer, who shampoos with Herbal Essences, persists, at least in part because of her fear that antiperspirant may cause ­cancer.

“Just for my pure health,” she says, “who cares if I stink a little?”

Alice Feiring, a wine writer in Manhattan, joked that autumn is her “season of non-bathing”.

“‘Didn’t I bring you up differently?”’ she said her mother asks. “‘What will people think?”’

But Feiring (52) is resolute.

“I don’t like to over-dry my skin,” she said. “It’s a myth that people need a deep cleaning every day.”

© 2010 New York Times News Service

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