“The Paleo Mom” Blogger Sarah Ballantyne. (Photo: Instagram/thepaleomom)
Sarah Ballantyne sweats so much at her hour-plus CrossFit sessions, she leaves a “sweat angel” when she lies on the floor after. Still, she doesn’t always follow her workouts with a shower. “I can go from that and get dressed, and I don’t smell,” says Ballantyne, a 39-year-old in Atlanta, better known as The Paleo Mom.
When she does shower, it’s typically sans soap and water. When she does lather up (about once every five days), it’s with alternative products made with “mushed up plants,” clay, seaweed and other all-natural ingredients. She’s done this for three years.
“I used to be somebody who would shower with shampoo and soaps every day,” says Ballantyne, a medical scientist by training who gave up her ritual to see if it would improve her skin conditions likepsoriasis. She hasn’t turned back. “I get these compliments on my hair and skin, and people want to know what I’m using,” Ballantyne says. When she tells them, “it’s like deer in headlights,” she says. “There’s a sense of disbelief.”
That is, until they hear why.
Ballantyne and others say that many common hygiene products aren’t only unnecessary, they can be harmful. Much like the gut, which needs a balance of healthy bacteria for optimal digestive health, the skin is healthiest when its trillion or so bacteria, or biome, are in balance – not stripped away by soaps, blocked by antiperspirants or killed by antibacterial cleansers. And so the argument goes.
“By taking out those chemicals [from soap] that are killing certain species,” Ballantyne explains, “we’re able to promote that diversity again and get a really healthy microbiome that’s good for your skin.”
That principle is not off-base, experts say. After all, allowing your skin’s healthy bacteria to thrive can help it do its job, says Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a dermatologist in Boston. “One of the skin’s main functions in life is … to keep the bad stuff out and the good stuff in,” she says. “And naturally, bacteria lives on our body, and that’s a healthy part of it.”
Back to Basics
Ballantyne’s path away from the bath began where many soap-shunners start: with the paleo diet. After dropping 120 pounds and watching her skin conditions improve, she was inspired to apply the program’s principles – namely, choosing whole, unprocessed products that have been around since the Paleolithic period – to her skin care regimen.
“It’s not about historical reenactment,” she says of the paleo lifestyle, “it’s about really understanding at a cellular, molecular level how diet and environment impacts our health and making the best choices within that understanding.”
Enough people are on board that sales of skin care products that protect and promote healthy skin bacteria are thriving. For example, orders of Mother Dirt’s mist, which contains a strain of good bacteria that eats the irritating, smelly components of sweat and uses them to nourish the skin, were backlogged for nine months during the product’s beta period, according to Mother Dirt spokeswoman Robin Magnuson.
“If you don’t use deodorant and you don’t use shampoo, the vast majority of people find they have much less dependence on traditional health care products once they start this journey,” says Lenny Barshack, co-founder and board member of AOBiome, who uses the spray every day. While he still enjoys a shower each morning, he hasn’t used body soap in three years.
Bogus or Genius?
Anti-soap advocates might be onto something. Researchers agree that various skin bacteria play a role in skin conditions; they’re just not sure how big of a role or exactly which ones do what. “Your skin has an incredibly rich and diverse microbiome,” says Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago, “and if we can figure out if there are ways to manipulate that microbiome in order to either improve outcomes or suppress disease states, [it’s worth] looking at that data as a treatment strategy.”
From a dermatologic point of view, limiting your soapy shower time has benefits, Hirsch says. For example, skipping scented bath products can be gentler on your skin, and short, cold and infrequent showers can keep your skin better hydrated. “Practically, most of us shower more than we need to, with the result being we constantly complain that our skin is dry and sensitive and irritated,” she says.
Unilever, the parent company of hygiene brands such as Dove and Axe, declined to comment for this article on why regular use of soap is necessary.
But changing your hygiene routine isn’t risk-free. Here’s what else to know before saying “no” to soap:
1. Be patient.
If you stop showering with soap and shampoo today, your skin and hair won’t feel miraculous tomorrow – it will actually probably feel greasy and dirty. “Our skin and scalp produce a lot more oil when we’re constantly washing that oil away,” Ballantyne says. You’ll stink for a bit too, since the good bacteria that interacts with sweat is particularly sensitive and slow-growing, she says. But eventually, your body will adjust. For some people, it may take a few weeks; for others, many months. “That transition period is very individual,” she says.
2. Don’t be “that guy.”
As the blogger behind CookingCaveman.com, Jeff Nimoy is about as big of a paleo fanatic as they come. But he draws the line at soap. “I am a modern caveman trying to make it in a modern world,” he says. “More than anything, I want to smell good.”
While people who go soap-free say they don’t stink once their microbiomes balance out, it’s still important to be aware of your surroundings. Ballantyne, for one, uses all-natural deodorants or makes her own from natural fats and aluminum-free baking soda. Sometimes, she dabs on essential oils “to smell pretty,” she says.
3. Consider your needs.
How often you shower and what products you use (if any) depends on how dirty you get. Most babies, on the one hand, can do with fewer baths. "We absolutely bathe the living bejeezus out of them,“ Hirsch says. ”…If you don’t put them in a vat of filth, they really can’t get [dirty] on their own.“ Usually, a wet cloth to "the action zone” is all the little ones need, she says.
But once babies grow up to become farmers, surgeons and chefs, on the other hand, soap is a blessing. Bottom line? Use common sense. “Right now,” Hirsch says, “the best compromise is probably what we’ve been saying all along: A quick, water-based shower using something to clean the areas that are kind of ‘of interest’ and balancing that with if you’ve had a particularly dirty day, if you’ve had a particularly heavy workout, if you’ve been exposed to something.”
4. Don’t forget your hands.
Even AOBiome doesn’t support skipping the hand wash after using the bathroom, handling raw meat or sneezing into your palm. “Your hands go places the rest of your body doesn’t,” Barshack says. Soap is also important after you’ve visited a hospital or need to clean an open wound, Hirsch adds. “Infection is a far greater risk than anything else,” she says.
5. Set realistic expectations.
While it’s unlikely that products like the Mother Dirt line can hurt you, it’s also unlikely they’ll change your life. “There are no magic bullets, there are no magic potions,” Gilbert says. What’s more, they’re sold asskin care products, not treatments for skin conditions that have gone through the FDA-approval process, so be wary of claims to the contrary. “Everything you do should be done with at least some semblance that you are confident that this product does something – and doesn’t do anything negative,” he says.
Gilbert, for one, isn’t sold yet. “Whether it’s the future of cleaning, wow, who knows?” he says. “I’m still using soap.”