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.