Apart from avoiding awkward moments where people either appear to be holding their breath when near us, visibly step back or move away from us on public transport, keeping clean is seen as essential to our well being and health.
Washing has also long been associated with ritual, religion, cleanliness, social gatherings and social acceptance.
We know why washing is important, right? But is our approach to personal hygiene healthy or do we need to clean up our act?
A Bucket Sized History of Washing
So, when did we start washing? Stone Age settlements were near springs so it is likely your standard caveman and woman enjoyed a splash about on a warm day. Bronze age societies including the Harrapans appeared to have plumbing and bathing infrastructures. Ancient Greece and Rome also had their heated bathhouses.
Throughout history, records and evidence of many forms of bathing — often heated and some combined with steam — have existed across all societies throughout the world.
Religions have used the symbol of water as one of purification and cleansing. From medieval days, the early Christian church encouraged cleanliness as it recognised the benefit to health and hygiene, even though it struggled with some of the hanky-panky that went on within the mixed public baths.
Possibly in response to this, the church built separate sex public bathing facilities near monasteries and pilgrimage sites.
As time moved on and humans being the fickle social creatures that like to change their minds, the ideas of the principles of washing being important drifted out of popular thinking.
Now, you were being vain if you wanted to be clean — perhaps too much fun was still being had in the public baths! Clean clothes instead of a clean body became to be seen as the measure of your cleanliness. Feeling a bit pongy? Just chuck a clean shirt on and it’ll be fine.
Society then decided that bathing was a good thing again for your health in the 18th century. Public baths started to appear in the 19th century as the cities started getting overcrowded and whiffy during the Industrial Revolution and sickness began to spread.
By the mid-19th century, the trendy town-based middle classes had set their beliefs that a person’s cleanliness was linked with a person’s moral and social standing within the community. If you smelt nice it showed you were a decent person.
Of course, people being people, having a bath became the thing to do because their ‘betters’ were doing it (and it was nice to feel ‘clean’), so the tin bath became a standard gadget in the home.
So by the beginning of the 20th century, a weekly Saturday night bath had become common custom for most of the population, although indoor plumbing was still rare, only becoming the norm as we headed well into the 20th Century.
In those days Saturday afternoon was about the long process of setting up the bath in the kitchen, boiling lots of water and then one by one everyone taking a turn in this slowly greyer and greyer water. Mmm, nice!
As with any fashionable school of thought, someone went kerching as they could see a market ripe for a bit of entrepreneurship and the soap business bubbled.
The latter part of the 20th Century embraced having a bath, as the luxury of having a bathroom became commonplace. This went hand in hand with the production and sale of a vast array of associated bathing and grooming products, often by-products of the petroleum industry.
Showering has also been around a long time but was not as easy to implement without plumbing systems with running water.
Until the invention of the power shower in the late 20th Century, a shower was often a disappointing affair, often chilly if central heating wasn’t available and also associated with cold school or gym changing rooms.
Environmental awareness around water usage, the fast pace of life and the ease and speed associated with being able to take a quick and effective shower has shifted modern-day focus to use showering as the prime means of washing.
Today we still view cleanliness and washing as very important and anything else is not strictly considered socially acceptable.
But is this actually good for us?
A Little Bit of Biology
Let’s consider the biology of our skin.
Our skin is the human’s largest organ. It is made up of two layers, the epidermis on top with the dermis underneath.
Underneath this is the subcutaneous layer, composed of fat or other connective tissue.
The outermost portion of the epidermis is made up of many layers of flat, dead, dry cells called keratinocytes. The waxy surface coating of these cells allows the skin to be waterproof and dry. Germs struggle to live here.
The deepest layers of the epidermis contain living keratinocytes, and as they grow, the overlying cells are pushed toward the surface. Upon exposure to ultraviolet light, melanin production is increased by melanocytes, which helps protect other cells from the damaging effects and is called tanning. Ultraviolet light from any source can harm the skin by causing skin cancer and wrinkling.
The dermis is made of fibrous connective tissue. The upper part of the dermis is called the dermal papillae. The lower parts of the dermis contain blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles, oil and sweat glands.
The merocrine sweat glands are also in the dermis and produce sweat to cool the body when overheating. Other sweat glands in the dermis are apocrine sweat glands that produce pheromones.
Hair follicles contain the root of a hair and have a bulb at the deep end. There is an oil gland associated with the follicle, known as a sebaceous gland, which produces sebum. This coats, moisturizes and protects your skin.
Research is being undertaken to understand sebum better as it believed it may have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
In the same way that the gut microbiome has been examined to understand its relationship to our wellbeing and disease, scientists are researching the skin microbiome.
What naturally lives on our skin and how does this protect or harm us? How is our modern life and actions impacting it? Are we interfering with nature to our detriment? Can we enhance and work more with nature to eliminate some diseases and prevent others?
The research body is building, and not just skin-related conditions but also in relation to our auto-immune systems, inflammation and more recently potential anti-cancer bacteria for example.
What Is Soap?
Traditional soap has been around a long time with soap recipes found carved onto ancient Babylonian clay containers.
It seems that soap and bathing have gone hand in hand with ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians all independently creating soap recipes.
Soap is made by combining fats and oils (either plant or animal-based) with an alkali, traditionally produced from wood ash, although modern versions such as sodium hydroxide (lye or caustic soda) or potassium hydroxide (caustic potash) are also used.
During the soap making process, saponification takes place, where the alkali causes the fats or oils to split into fatty acids and glycerin. The sodium or potassium part of the alkali joins with the fatty acid part of the fat or oils and is called soap.
In the 1940’s, scientists developed the first cleansers based on a chemical called sodium lauryl sulphate, initially used to wash clothes and later developed into personal washing products.
These cleansers became popular as they were cheap and easy to produce, were less damaging to skin and hair than some traditional soaps and made lots of bubbles.
Most current bathroom products, including shampoo, is based on this ingredient.
What Happens When We Wash?
Whether you use a traditional soap bar, standard shower gel, bath foam or shampoo the process is the same. Even a lower based PH soap still works with the same principles.
Soap molecules have a love-hate relationship with water — one side likes water (hydrophilic) and the other doesn’t (hydrophobic).
The hydrophobic ends of soap are attracted to dirt and oil so when we apply soap to our skin it combines with the natural oils, dead skin cells and dirt. The other side then combines with water and washes off with the dirt and oil attached.
So, What Does This Mean?
If our skin is covered in dirt, grime and unknown germs it would make sense to remove this layer. Definitely, if the dirt is on our hands and we are about to touch and eat food.
And then there are those other bits of us that can harbour bacteria and smell.
Also, dead skin not being shed due to dirt layers can contribute to blocked pores and potential infection.
So in general principles, thumbs up to washing. No argument there. Or is there?
The questions arise around what and how much we are putting all over our skin, what we are constantly removing and how often we do this.
All soap products work by stripping off the natural oils along with the dirt. Some soaps have lower alkalinity so are closer to the PH level of our skins but they still essentially do the same thing.
Add in the hot water opening our pores, allowing our skins to absorb the ingredients in the products and then the whole process becomes questionable.
If you watch what you are eating and putting into your body but what about your skin that absorbs what has been put on it too?
There are now more and more people looking to live more as nature has intended us to and questioning our modern-day lifestyles.
Driven by environmental and health concerns, alternative lifestyles based on what we know now, along with practices we have abandoned due to changing social fashions or just deemed to be unnecessary or wrong, are being re-examined.
This does not mean throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to personal hygiene. Applying intelligent thinking and pushing back on our conventional socially accepted thinking is important.
Do we need to wash as often or use as many soap-based products — natural based or otherwise?
Are we messing with our natural biology and opening ourselves up to infection more than protecting ourselves?
There is a lot of research being undertaken as to the impact of what we are doing to the body’s largest organ. This is not just to do with skin conditions but other issues such as inflammation and auto-immune disorders.
In response to the research, shifts in thinking new products based on probiotics and ammonia-oxidising bacteria, for example, are being developed, tested and marketed.
This market is in its early stages but is growing. But are these just products to replace soap and do we really need them? Do they work and are they worth the cost?
Maybe they do or maybe these products play to our need to go through the social conventions of washing and grooming.
Time and further research will tell.
I’m not an early adopter or even a medium risk-taker but I stopped wearing make-up regularly years ago and only wash my face with water.
A bath is a rare treat, and I shower when I feel grimy — normally around twice a week. I try to minimise my use of deodorants, soaps, lotions and hand creams, opting for natural vegetable-based oils if needed. (Yes, a spoonful of olive oil for dry hands is cheap and very effective).
I don’t see myself jumping to start adding things to my skin for now.
It will be interesting to watch the research and see how our mindset shifts around hygiene over the next few years as we uncover more information about our bodies and have to find ways to minimise our environmental impact too.
The idea of not washing as much may still be quite taboo and not ready to hit the mainstream but it is one area that we need to consider if we want to minimise our environmental impact and maximise our health and well being too.
I won't be washing my hands of my personal hygiene responsibility yet but will be more mindful about how I am treating my skin.