Why you shouldn't bathe at all

Updated: Oct 22, 2019, 07:40 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

I stopped using soap three weeks ago - and my skin doesn't itch, my hair is softer and I glow in the dark

Washing the teeth, face and hands have always been considered basic good manners though in general, the richer you were, the more parts of your body received more water more often. Pic/Istock
Washing the teeth, face and hands have always been considered basic good manners though in general, the richer you were, the more parts of your body received more water more often. Pic/Istock

C Y Gopinath Some months ago, I found myself besotted by a Netflix period fantasy serial called Outlander. Set in 1945, it tells the story of Claire Randall, a British nurse who is accidentally transported to 18th century Scotland and embroiled in the developing stories and histories of the ancestors of her Scottish fiancé from 1945. She falls intensely in love with a ruggedly handsome Scot called Jamie Fraser, surviving battles, incarceration, brutal violence and lots of sex, all the while searching for a way back into her own time.

I have watched three seasons of the riveting story, swept along by the high drama, intrigue and superb acting. As I reflected upon Scotland's fiery, volatile history with England and its centuries-old fight for identity, a powerful question arose in my mind: when did these fearless devils bathe? And with what? When beautiful Claire Randall stood next to her fair and indomitable Jamie, how was she not rendered senseless by the pong of his unwashed body?

Scotland is cold and misty, and the huts and dwellings of the 18th century did not have piped water. Its castles survived on well-water, and that resource usually bathed the upper echelons of society. Jamie, it seemed to me, must have had a powerful 'presence'. In fact, an army of the wild unwashed racing towards the enemy on horseback might have won half the battle by the aromatics that preceded them alone.

Oh, I know, I know. Indians are not like that. India had piped water supply and indoor toilets as far as back as the Indus Valley civilization 5,500 years before Christ. So did the ancient Greeks, with their public bathhouses, and the Chinese, and the Jews and the Muslims of the Middle East. Washing the teeth, face and hands have always been considered basic good manners, though in general, the richer you were, the more parts of your body received more water more often. Bathing has always, it seems, been popular among humans.

Except for a while when the plague of the 14th century gave bathhouses a bad name. Rumour was that hot water helped spread the germs of bubonic plague and also, just for fun, syphilis. It must have been around then that the Russian ambassador to France noted that His Majesty Louis the XIV "stunk like a wild animal". Queen Isabel I of Spain claimed that she had taken a full-body bath only twice in her lifetime, once after birth and then again just before her wedding.

My new question was: what would happen if you never ever bathed? Would you just pong more and more and more till people around you began dropping off like flies? Dogs and cats never bathe but their odours certainly don't knock people out. In fact, animals smell more or less like, well, animals. Nothing overwhelming. I'm a suspicious sort. I wonder if we soap-using bath freaks are victims of a global conspiracy by corporations that sell soap.

David Whitlock has not bathed for 15 years and claims he is much the better for it and definitely has no body odour. "It was kind of strange for the first few months, but after that I stopped missing it," he says. If any part of his body gets dirty, of course, he'll wash it but never with soap, which depletes your skin's essential oils and changes its pH value (acid-alkali balance).

David is in the vanguard of a new movement informed by our new understanding of the microbiome, the trillions of microbes now known to colonise every available surface in and out of our bodies. By not bathing, David believes, he feeds his microbiome what it needs. In return, the microbes keep him odour-free.

Sarah Ballantyne, the Paleo mom famous for her advocacy of a Stone Age lifestyle also has no BO despite sweating buckets at the gym every week. She's stopped using soap and only washes when she must, that too only with water. She believes her odour free armpits are a sure sign that her microbiome is flourishing.

Whitlock wondered why horses, elephants and other animals roll in the dirt, and guessed they must be topping up their microbiomes with ammonia-eating bacteria. He isolated a human-friendly strain from local soil and launched it as a spray, Mother Dirt AO + Mist. No more odours.

Don't stop bathing just yet, though. There's still not a lot of evidence that soap is bad for your microbiome or that not bathing makes you look younger, cures cancer and makes you live forever. Though note, please, that Dove's latest soap is labelled 'biome friendly'.

I stopped using soap three weeks ago, and rub myself down vigorously instead using just water. I've stopped itching and my hair is a little shinier. Of late, I've been glowing in the dark.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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