Nope to Soap

How washing makes you dirtier

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Whose mother hasn’t told her children to wash their hands? We live in a hygiene-conscious society that has little tolerance for either dirt or body odor. We think of the days when washing was believed to be unhealthy as the Dark Ages, even though people believed that until fairly recently.

It wasn’t just the invention of the microscope in 1590 and the discovery of a whole unseen world of bacteria that changed people’s minds. Neither was it the famous demonstration by Semmelweis in 1850 of the impressive drop in hospital infections when physicians simply washed their hands prior to touching patients. Much of the present-day manic obsession with cleanliness is created and perpetuated by the cosmetics industry.

But is it really better to wash at every opportunity with soap and water?

Look at what the Center for Disease Control recommends regarding just washing your hands. One should wash before, during, and after food preparation, before eating, before and after caring for someone who is ill, before and after treating a cut or a wound, after going to the bathroom, after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet, after blowing your nose, after coughing, after sneezing, after touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste, after handling pet food or pet treats, and after any contact with garbage.

Not all germs are bad

In “The Microbiome Solution” by Dr. Robynne Chutkan, who founded the Digestive Center for Women, the author points out that a residual amount of soil hosts benign germs that help protect us from the more dangerous species. Systematically removing microorganisms in the shower every day by scrubbing ourselves may actually increase the incidence of eczema, acne, and fungal infections like athlete’s foot and jock itch. If you must use soap, she recommends that you use one that is organic and mild.

But the optimal soap is your own skin.

Need a little convincing? Fine. Let’s look at how soaps and detergents work.

Squeaky clean

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Remember that phrase “squeaky clean?” It is possible to wash your hair with soap so thoroughly that it strips the oil away and your hair literally squeaks when you rub it. Not a drop of oil is left to ease the friction. And it was considered desirable!

Today we know that washing your hair and skin can do far more harm than good. When you remove the oil from your skin, you destroy the body’s primary line of defense against disease.

Take a moment to think about it. If scrubbing your skin with soap were good for it, why does it feel uncomfortably tight, dry, and itchy afterwards? Why does it become red and irritated? Your body is reacting to an injurious process and reacting in defense. Optimally, any soap you choose should remove dirt without removing the skin’s own oils.


Skin cleansers are designed to remove dirt, sweat, sebum and oils from the skin. They accomplish this through surface-active agents, or surfactants for short. Surfactants attach themselves to the tiny bits of dirt and grime, making it possible to dissolve them in water. They also aid in the process of exfoliation (removing dead skin flakes.)

Surfactants as chemical agents are used in a wide variety of products like perfume, lotions, shampoos, and conditioners. They serve as emulsifiers, wetting agents, foaming agents, detergents, and conditioners.

The surfactants found in skin cleansers are designed to leave the customer with clean, glowing skin, but they don’t always succeed. These products can damage the stratum corneum – the outermost layer of the epidermis – resulting in tightness, dryness, damage to dermal integrity, inflammation, irritation, itching, and irritation after washing.

The Stratum Corneum and soap

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To understand how surfactants irritate the skin, we need to understand how cleansers interact with the different components of the outermost layer of the epidermis. The stratum corneum is made up of layers of dead keratinocytes (cells that produce a protein called keratin) that are constantly being pushed from the base layer up to the surface. When a layer of keratinocytes reaches the outermost layer of the stratum corneum, they’re called corneocytes.

Corneocytes (from the Latin meaning “horn cells”) are hard and dry, having lost their nuclei and cytoplasm. Soaps attach themselves to their proteins and help restore water volume, making them swell. The swelling helps cleansers get deeper into the layers of the skin, where they may come into contact with nerve endings and the immune system, leading to itching and irritation. After the water evaporates, the corneocytes become even drier than previously and that dryness may last for a very long time. Soaps reduce the skin's natural ability to moisturize itself.

The Effects of Soaps on Lipids

The stratum corneum is also made up of oils that help skin stay moist. The precise impact of soaps on these lipids is not completely clear, but the research shows that surfactants can penetrate and disrupt the lipid bilayers, increasing permeability. Surfactants can even damage the fundamental structure of the fatty acids themselves, reducing the amount of oil in the skin available for use.

Soaps and pH Levels

Surfactants can be broadly divided into two classes: soap-based surfactants and detergent-based surfactants. (The detergent-based surfactants, being synthetic rather than naturally derived, are called syndets.) Soap-based cleansers usually have a pH of approximately 10, which makes them vastly more alkaline than syndets. (Syndets are usually neutral, around pH 7 or a bit more acidic.) Soap’s higher alkalinity seems to be a major cause of skin irritation that comes with the use of surfactant cleansers. The precise way in which this irritation occurs is unclear.

Avoid anti-bacterial soaps

Unless you work in a hospital, where spreading dangerous germs to immune-weakened patients is a serious risk, it is better to avoid hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps. The germs on your skin are mostly harmless. Some extra caution might be warranted during flu season and occasional washing with a mild soap and water for a few seconds is fine. But overuse of harsh cleansers strips away protective oils of your own skin along with the harmless bacteria that help keep malignant microbes in check.

Every square millimeter of your epidermis is populated by quiescent bacteria, viruses, and fungal spores. They mostly sit there calmly, doing nothing until something changes.

Darkness, moisture and warmth

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Fungi need three things to start growing and start an infection: darkness, moisture, and warmth. Wearing clothing that traps the trouble-making microbes against the skin, along with your body heat and moisture from your own perspiration, provides all three of these elements. It is not surprising that the most common places fungi love to grow are between the toes and at the groin.

Change your clothes

We often use medicated powders and creams to stop fungal growth, but a much simpler and more effective practice is just to change your socks and underwear every day. Wearing the same clothing infused with activated fungi that the snug garments rub into your skin is the wrong thing to do, especially when your skin has already been stripped of its protective oil and bacteria thanks to your daily shower.

Live a little dirtier

Get close to the earth. She’s your mother. Dig in the garden. Sit on the lawn. Go ahead and shop at the farmers’ market. Turn off the air conditioner and open the windows. Let life circulate! When you do bathe or shower, go easy on the soap or shampoo and just towel yourself off afterward to remove the excess skin flakes.

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Get out into the fresh air and sunshine wearing as little as possible for at least a few minutes every day. You’ll be healthier for it.