A Scientific Argument for Leaving Our Skin Alone

Book review: Clean: The New Science of Skin, by James Hamblin (Amazon)

James Hamblin is a doctor of preventive medicine and staff writer at The Atlantic. His latest book, Clean: The New Science of Skin, looks at the mix of confusing messaging around what actually works in skincare, the scientific limits of products against their purported effects, the background behind the glut of marketing targeting every skin issue imaginable, the big business of developing new products for skin problems we didn’t know we had and standards we didn’t realize we should be attaining, and the emerging, promising new science of the skin microbiome.

Needless to say there’s a lot packed into what’s surprisingly a fairly concise book. Hamblin is an excellent guide through this content — informative, humorous, and personable. He makes the initially startling admission that he’s basically stopped showering in order to allow his skin microbiome to work on its own as it’s intended to,  utilizing the flourishing network of trillions of microbes that make up the ecosystem of our skin. This is sure to make anyone a bit uneasy, but Hamblin makes a good case for it and presents the medical background underpinning his decision.

The science around the microbiome is advancing, but isn’t nearly as far as it needs to be considering how much it does for our bodies, and thus the conditions and aspects of health it affects. Hamblin explains that modern standards of cleanliness mean we’re overcleaning — stripping our skin of the valuable microbes and oils it uses to protect us and fight disease, as well as to regulate our responses to things like illness and allergens — and replacing these with a flood of products that can have harmful side effects and don’t accomplish what they allege. Not to mention the cost in money, time, and environmental impact.

After talking to microbiologists, allergists, geneticists, ecologists, estheticians, bar-soap enthusiasts, venture capitalists, historians, Amish people, international aid workers, and a few straight-up scam artists, I came to believe that we are at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the basic conception of what it means to be clean.

The microbiome is undeniably the most fascinating element here, especially because it will have even more far-reaching implications as our understanding of it improves. Skin microbiomes are complex and influenced by so many factors: where we grew up, whether we lived with pets, the (over)cleanliness of our environments, and the products we’ve been using over time. Our microbiomes have even been shown to begin matching up with those of the people we live with.

Hamblin drives home the message that we’re messing with our body’s largest organ too much, and if we would leave it alone, it would function as it’s supposed to and as it’s evolved to do over millions of years: “We can try to control or coat it with topical products, but it is ultimately a force of nature reacting to the constant signals coming from underneath and outside of it.” He also makes the point that “market incentive is to maximize use of a product, not to minimize it,” which is hard to argue with.

He acknowledges how controversial, even inflammatory, his limited showering and scaled-back product stance is, so loops in expert information gathered by others who have had major skin issues or experience in the various industries he explores. One journalist describes her lifelong struggle with acne and what happened when she simply stopped treating it, and we get a deep dive into the flimsy regulations and history of the soap industry and the exorbitant amounts people invest in facials and questionable products.

Hamblin isn’t pushy or preachy — he’s even-keeled in his approach and his relaxed, informal tone emphasize that he’s only trying to inform about how we can take better care of ourselves in ways we didn’t think made sense, but which have ample science behind them: “This book is meant only to offer an alternative perspective on how our personal care habits affect our bodies and the communities on and around us.”

There’s a brief section of the prologue addressing the coronavirus pandemic, but the shadow of it looms over every page here in terms of hygiene and human connection. It was a bit eerie, actually, especially since Hamblin identifies our connection to other people as a key factor in boosting and maintaining long-term health. He even has a funny but helpful segue about toilet paper, which was also surreal to read during early stages of the pandemic, when paper products disappeared from store shelves.

Most importantly, this is as accessible as it is info-packed. Nothing about the science is dense or too complex to follow. Unfortunately there’s still a long way to go in research, but the message here serves as an early warning — we’re doing too much to our skin that disrupts its own painstakingly evolved processes, and that includes using “natural” products. Beginning to pull back on these things seems like the wisest place to start, and Clean is a fascinating, data-driven argument for less being more.

Clean: The New Science of Skin
by James Hamblin
published July 21, 2020 by Riverhead Books

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon

38 thoughts on “A Scientific Argument for Leaving Our Skin Alone

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    1. I really bristled at first too, especially since I’ve struggled with breakouts for as long as I can remember. It’s so worth reading his explanations though, I promise! And it’s a fairly quick read and very funny. I can’t go as far as he advocates but I’ve definitely changed some things since reading it.

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      1. I read your review with rapt attention. I need this book! I am always on some kind of skin treatment crusade, buying products and doing yet another regime, which ends with more spots on my face and less money in my bank account. Retinoids anyone? My husband has been telling me forever to leave my skin alone. He only ever washes his face with water and has lovely skin. On the other hand I am horribly oily and breakouty and do need some products to keep the zits under control.. I agree we probably don’t need to stand under a hot shower for ages every day but a tart’s wash of strategic areas is definitely necessary…Sorry, is that too much detail for a book review blog??? I had better shut up and go read the book.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. YES you really need this one!! I feel the same. I was using something with some kind of acid touted for its magnificent magical abilities and my face was red and burny for days and of course no noticeable improvement in the wrinkles I was targeting. I’ve been through so much, and also having dealt with breakouts for what feels like forever until finding a product that worked, I also bristled a bit, thinking this can’t be right. But his explanations make perfect sense – you can fix a few surfacey things like that but most of what they promise just isn’t even possible. My husband also has dealt with breakouty skin and joined me on my journey of buying a million increasingly expensive products with no big results. When we were video chatting a few weeks ago, I noticed his skin was looking lovely, better than I’d ever seen it in all our years together. I asked what he was using — nothing. Anecdotal, but matches up with his better evidence here!

        And that tart’s wash (ha I love it!) is basically exactly what he recommends here. When he says he stopped showering that’s what he meant. He also stopped hair washing, which I’ve been cutting down for years with really good results but the thought of cutting it out entirely and only using water is the one thing I can’t get behind yet.

        Anyway I would LOVE to hear what you think of this one!!

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  1. This sounds interesting, since I have problem skin. During the lockdown I’ve pretty much left my skin alone. Ok, I didn’t actually stop showering, but I’ve used no make up or face lotions, just a mild serum. And I see no difference!! 😒 Perhaps I really need to read this book. 🙂

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    1. It does suck that there wasn’t an improvement, but if you’re spending a lot of money on the products and there’s no still no difference maybe that’s enough a sign that it’s not worth it? I’m on the fence because as much worthless junk as I’ve used, I do really appreciate the products I’ve found for managing my breakouts but that seems to be the extent of any results I’ve seen, basically ever. It really is worth reading, I want to get a copy to keep as I think I could use a second pass through it, it’s really that helpful!

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      1. If I just found one product which worked, I would think all the time and money were well spent. As it is, I might continue with the minimalistic approach. And read the book! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think that’s exactly the best approach. I’ve found one that works for my breakouts, but just treating here problem areas on a case by case basis, basically. It’s not a miracle worker but I think my skin also improved from not using 5 or 6 different things as part of the “routine”. The rest is best left minimal, and saves a small fortune!

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  2. This is a fascinating take on the skincare industry — I’m intrigued to read the book. As a person with curly hair, I have often been cautioned in a similar fashion about over-shampooing, which causes it to be dry and frizzy. In addition, most common shampoos contain sulfates, which are harsh chemicals and are unnecessary to maintain clean scalp and hair. It really highlights the larger issue of inventing products that harm rather than help how our bodies have evolved to manage our personal microbiome.

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    1. That’s exactly it, we invent products to solve problems that aren’t even problems in the first place and they have horrible effects on our health, microbiomes, and the environment, all while not really doing what they say they do. It’s a pretty astonishing marketing trick. Definitely give this one a try, I thought it was fascinating and it’s very entertainingly written so makes for a fun read too.

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  3. This is vaguely related to the topic of my PhD, so I’m happy that there is a book coming out about it (and surprised that I didn’t know)! Lovely review – I’ll definitely be picking this one up.

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      1. I looked at hospital-acquired skin damage in neonatal units – so although this doesn’t directly relate to it, I had to do a lot of reading about the changing structure and function of skin across the lifespan before I got started on my research, and then I had to make sure any practice change recommendations I was making didn’t disrupt the microbiome without a good reason.

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      2. Wow, that is so fascinating! So since you already know a lot about the microbiome, it might be less fascinating to you for that but I still think you’d get a lot out of it. He offers an interesting perspective and it’s just written in a way that’s fun to read.

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    1. I noticed a massive improvement in my skin when I started working at home several years ago and not wearing makeup every day. I think people become so dependent on the routine without seeing significant results but it’s almost like a superstition, like you’re so committed to doing it and you think it’s doing SOMETHING and everything will fall apart when you stop. Whereas the reality is the products aren’t doing much of anything. Glad you enjoyed reading it, I think you’d get a lot out of the book!

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  4. Excellent review, Ren💜 I learned a lot of this years ago and adjusted my bathing schedule accordingly (every other day). My results aren’t scientific but I feel healthier, haven’t had a cold in years. And, my skin looks great. I do use a face cleaning process daily but everything else can wait a day😏 Color me a believer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh that’s so interesting that it’s worked for you too! I’ve scaled my face skincare way back with good results since reading this and have been adjusting showering too. It was kind of mindblowing to think how unnecessary some of these practices are. I’m glad you figured these things out too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My face care routine is simple…a good cleanser and a moisturizer. That’s it. And, my friend makes the moisturizer (she’s a doctor who started this as a hobby and only uses natural products). I switched to hers because my skin reacted so well. And, it’s a fraction of the normal cost.

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  5. Less is more. I’m pretty basic when it comes to skin care. During the pandemic I’ve only worn makeup a couple of times for important Zoom situations so I didn’t look like I actually had COVID. I stopped wearing my contacts too. Silver lining perhaps??

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I felt like I was learning the less is more lesson here and everything he wrote just cemented it. And that cracked me up — it actually felt strange to put makeup on when I had a video call or in the last few weeks when I finally started to carefully meet with people. I had completely forgotten what my made up face looked like, no joke!! Same for contacts, it’s got to better for our eyes this way..

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  6. This looks so fascinating – especially considering that during quarantine I have scaled way back on how many different products I put on my skin and have seen some weird things happen. I cannot wait to read it.

    Now, can we get a book telling us we don’t have to wash our hair as much? It has felt way beyond me to bother with lately.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What if I told you the message about not needing to wash your hair as much was ALSO this book? And that actually it’s also better for you? Some harsh truths about deodorant too? It’s all here! Seriously, this book is amazing. I actually only wash my hair every 5-7 days and have for years. It’s messy at first but now it’s kept my hair in clearly, measurably better conditioning, maybe especially considering I use bleach highlights so it’s prone to being sensitive. Hamblin actually doesn’t wash his at all, if I understood him correctly. He just rinses it with water. I can’t go that far, but he’s got the science for why we shouldn’t be washing it as much as we do either. I think you’d love this one!!

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      1. I think you have just validated my quarantine existence!!!! I will absolutely have to pick up a copy of this book although I can already tell you that I won’t be able to give up shampoo entirely or my deodorant. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so interesting!!! I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – this seems to be the opposite experience of most commenters here haha but I’ve actually been spending a LOT more time and money on skincare during quarantine, more as a way to stave off boredom than anything. I’ve had decent results but lately have been thinking how much of this is actual science and how much is capitalism?? Like, am I really achieving anything I couldn’t achieve by just washing my face with soap?! So yeah I don’t know – it’s interesting and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more research on this in coming years!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha this doctor would argue that no, you’re not achieving anything more despite the products! He makes some interesting points about the impossibility of the claims some product lines make based on what can actually be affected on your skin. It’s very eye opening!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I’ve read him yet in The Atlantic but I want to, he has a fantastic and very amusing writing style. I learned so much from this one, and I agree — anything that saves you time and money in this area is worth trying!

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