A Doctor Weighs in on Those Unwashed Celebs
An interview with “Clean” author James Hamblin.
Cheetos spokespeople Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis recently appeared on Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Expert” podcast, making headlines for their family’s minimalist bathing routines. Other famous people have since reported that they, too, have taken to bathing less. James Hamblin, physician and health reporter, has been spreading the gospel of showering less, or not at all, for a long time. In fact, one might say all these celebrities are actually just copying him because they are jealous. I must disclose that he is also my friend.
Hamblin is the author of Clean: The New Science of Skin, which explores the burgeoning field of study devoted to the skin microbiome; it also explores all of the shit we’re doing to our skin that maybe we don’t need to be doing, in terms of showering and cetera. Obviously he is the correct person to talk to about the celebrities, and what they are doing (and not doing) with their bodies while nude.
I called him on the phone today to talk about it, and here is our discussion.
What do you think about the recent spate of celebrities advocating for showering less?
I listened to the podcast, and Mila Kunis seems to do a sort of minimalist routine. But she does shower.
Yeah, she said she washes “pits and tits and holes and soles.”
Right, right. I guess that is what you might call “targeted cleaning,” which makes total sense from a physiologic perspective. You’re targeting the areas that are going to build up oil, and are therefore more likely to have microbial imbalances, and/or just feel grime-y, even though there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the grime. But you might feel better, or smell better, if you do that.
But you don’t do that, right? Or do you do that?
I do, but I don’t use soap. I only use soap on my hands. But [on my body] I just do a little bit of scrubbing. Which I think people are familiar with, in the case of something like water-only face washing, which I think Mila Kunis endorses too. Whether it’s with a towel or with your hands, you’re using something to sort of remove a little bit of oil and dead skin cells.
There’s a store near me that sells a tiny bottle of water to rinse your face with called “dew drops,” and it costs $32.
Yeah, that’s the thing — these products are getting more and more minimalist, and also often more expensive. People want products with very few ingredients, and they’re getting very close to nothing. But I think that shows us that we like the ritual; people don’t want to do nothing. There are other aspects of this that we find to be enjoyable, even if they aren’t necessary from a medical perspective, and even if they don’t make you look or smell any better. We just like doing them. So I think that’s part of people’s pushback to it, it’s kind of joyless to give up on this stuff.
What do you think is driving this change in celebrity bathing behavior?
Well, I think a lot of people have been this way for a long time. They just don’t talk about it because it’s a space where people project a lot of judgment onto others, and are very ready to call people gross or disgusting. But I’ve talked to tons of people about their bathing and showering habits, and I’ve met a lot of people who are much more minimalist than what you might see in an ad for shower gel or whatever, where people are fully lathered all the time. So I think that is actually going out of style. People want more minimalist routines, and they don’t want to cover their whole body in soap every day, because it really does dry out your skin. And I think some people in certain social positions are feeling more comfortable talking openly about this stuff.
Yeaah. Yeah. They happen to be the people who are able to do it, because there are more serious social repercussions for other people — they might seem unprofessional, or might lose their job, or might be openly discriminated against in ways they can’t simply absorb. Meanwhile, Ashton can. So that’s why I’m not against it; it kind of has to be those people who break with the norms first in order to make it so other people can open up about it. Not that they’re brave pioneers, or anything. They’re just uniquely positioned to talk about this stuff.
And uniquely positioned to have the sort of lifestyles that might lead to like, good skin.
Yeah — the way your skin functions is, in addition to genetics, very tied to your overall health. We all experience that in small ways like breaking out after being stressed or not sleeping or eating well. Those lifestyle factors manifest in our skin. And they’re also tied to wealth. So, what celebrities do for their skin doesn’t necessarily work the same way for everyone. Especially for people who live in constant stress, maybe who have to work night shifts or live in food deserts or don’t have reliable, safe housing. If those same people got plopped into mansions with chefs and just a few Zoom calls a day, they might also notice that all they need to do is just splash some water on their face and it looks fine.
Is it surprising to you that the trend you predicted, about there being less emphasis on being “clean” in quotes, seems to be staying on course despite the pandemic?
The pandemic has thrown a wrench into a lot of what I thought was going to happen. It sort of accelerated things in a good direction, where people are focussing on hygiene behaviors that are meaningful. You’re trying not to spread disease to other people, which is the point of hygiene; that is why you wash your hands. Or even spread disease to yourself. You want to wash your hands so you don’t scratch your nose and give yourself a respiratory tract infection, and you want to brush your teeth so you’re not getting cavities that become abscesses. And you don’t want to go out with blood or vomit or anything else that might transmit disease on you.
Outside of that, things are personal preference or social custom. So I think when people aren’t going out as much, they realize they don’t have to do that part of it, if they don’t want to. So I think people are doing more in terms of thoughtful disease prevention stuff, and, for some people, the pandemic has led to less in terms of the elective stuff. Or at least, they’re experimenting with doing less.
Do you think people, in general, should reexamine their relationship with bathing?
It’s a good moment to realize there’s not a single right way to do it. It’s much more like nutrition where there are certainly ways to do it wrong, but you have to be pretty extreme to mess up. There’s not one single right answer. There are general principles that are good to think about. And more importantly, this is an area where there is a lot of judgement and stigma. People are ready to call other people gross or disgusting. That part of it is still weird to me, because we got over doing that with a lot of other things about our bodies, and our self maintenance habits. Yet here, even kind and thoughtful people like to use those kind of meaninglessly judgmental terms, which are kind of loaded.
And I guess it’s not a problem if you want to call Ashton Kutcher gross, but much more often those judgmental terms are used to discriminate against groups that are blamed for bringing disease, or any kind of “bad thing” into society. It’s used to otherize people. The more that we can drive that kind of language and judgement out of the conversation and reserve it for people who are actually, you know, doing dangerous things, like not taking precautions and spreading viruses to populations — that would be “gross.” But not using deodorant is not. It might be offensive if you have to work and people are inconsiderate, but it doesn’t make that person “gross” — their body is not “gross.”
Do you think any of the celebrities who are talking about bathing now have read your book?
It’s weird timing, if they haven’t. Because they’re talking about it with a sort of confidence that’s coming from … somewhere. But I don’t know, and I didn’t invent this either. I talk to people in the book who have been advocating this for a while. But what’s interesting about these admissions is that it’s not shameful, like yeaaah I know I should do more, in the way of people who quit exercising or something. They’re saying, like, no, you’re actually not supposed to be doing this. They read or heard something. I wish they would plug the book! If Dax Shepherd is reading this, have me on your podcast.