By James Hamblin
The Bodley Head 280pp
Book Review by Robin Osborne
Doubtless he will be popularised as the doctor who doesn’t wash – just one-part true – but there is much more to this fascinating book, as the sub-title suggests: “The new science of skin and the beauty of doing less.”
Let it be noted that Hamblin is not just any doctor but a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health, a specialist in preventive medicine and a staff writer at The Atlantic. He can certainly write, and to quote someone else who can, the revered Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies, and much more), he has penned an “illuminating and engaging book”.
Uncannily, as I was half-way through it, I spotted a full back-cover ad in The Sun-Herald magazine advertising soap: “One bar = up to six bottles of shampoo &conditioner”, it was headed, “Try out this new and eco-friendly product today!”
The copy could have come straight from the pages of Clean, whose cover also depicts a bar of soap, and spruiked how the company had saved one million plastic bottles so far, that it is vegan, cruelty free, eco-sustainable, and a replacement for all hair care products.
Hamblin, who no longer washes his hair, traces hygiene through the ages and charts the history of products with outlandish claims, telling us how soaps such as Palmolive, Dove and Lifebuoy got their names - and markets - and asserting how most of “the myriad products that fill pharmacy shelves today” are not only over-priced and unnecessary but deleterious, whether billed for our health or our beauty.
The bottom line is that skin care products, including soaps, destroy the skin microbiome, which is “a pretty brilliant product of millions of years of evolution… [that] does not need to be maintained in an elaborate way that we didn’t already know made our skin look good: sleeping and eating well, minimising anxiety, and spending time in nature.”
He argues that the quest for greater cleanliness is not only unsustainable but “may be doing more harm than good,” citing how eczema and other topical diseases are more likely to have internal causes, and lamenting our obsession with products from shampoos to moisturisers, probiotics to detox treatments, which all lack proper regulation.
He gives a thumbs-down to dry toilet paper (“You wouldn’t come in from gardening and wash your hands with a dry paper towel, so why would dry paper be the standard for cleaning off actual fecal matter?”) and douching: “The fallout… may actually be the first widely recognised instance of the negative effects of hygiene on the microbiome.”
For the record, the author uses soap after toileting and attends to his private parts. And he has written a terrific book.