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November 29, 2007 11:34 AM   Subscribe

A question to help resolve an argument: Can not using soap on your body result in negative consequences?

Here are the details:
You do not use soap on your body. You shower regularly and use face wash, shampoo and conditioner. When showering, you take care to clean your un-soaped body with the hot water. You sometimes use shave gel to shave your legs and armpits. You wear deodorant every day.

You have no infections or special cleaning needs. Most often, you appear and smell clean. Your skin looks good. *No one would be able to tell.*

What is the result? Future health issues?
posted by smartless to Health & Fitness (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
IANAD but as far as I know, none. My godchild has always had severe eczema and has been bathed without soap for 8 years in a row with nothing bad happening. She smells scrumptious, too :)
posted by DarlingBri at 11:39 AM on November 29, 2007


I'm sure someone will come along with a good scientific answer, but my 2 cents: humans lived a long, long time before soap was invented. We may have had access to soap-like substances, depending on where we were, but mostly, no soap. And yet, 10,000 or more years later, here's the human race.

Unless you clean sewers for a living, or work in a slaughterhouse, I don't see that soap is incredibly necessary.

Data point: I use soap, and work a desk job.
posted by rtha at 11:40 AM on November 29, 2007


The result is that you're clean and smell good. I haven't used soap while bathing since I was a child, and I'm pushing 40. I shower and shampoo every day -- and use shampoo on all the thickly hairy places on my body -- but no soap. I wear deoderant every day.

I can't imagine that there are any future health issues, since this is how I've kept clean for 25-odd years.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:41 AM on November 29, 2007


If you're otherwise healthy, with no skin conditions, wounds, infections or other unusual items that require real cleaning, you're probably fine.

But I think most adults would find that they get a wee bit fragrant without some soaping of their more intricate and hairy areas. Not all adults -- just most. You'd want to be really sure that your friends weren't just humouring you when they said you smelled fine.
posted by maudlin at 11:43 AM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Personally I've not used soap in the shower most of my adult life (I just don't like the feel) and have the same cleaning behaviors that you listed.
So far so good and I'm 38.
posted by thekorruptor at 11:44 AM on November 29, 2007


I don't use soap on my body... I have incredibly sensitive skin, and when I was little I would break out in a rash if any soap touched me anywhere. It's gotten better as I've gotten older, but I still have to be really careful. I use cleanser to shave (and I do use cleanser if I'm muddy or something), and obviously I use shampoo and conditioner. But 95% of the time I don't use anything soap-like except on my pits and my face. (On my face I use a sensitive skin formula makeup remover and moisturizing cream.) At 35, my skin looks great (I look 10 years younger than I am), I'm super healthy, and I don't smell or have a cloud over me like Pigpen. I look like someone who is rather finicky about their appearance, not like a slacker. (Note: I'm aware that there are things I could use, like Ceatphil, etc., but it hasn't been a problem for 35 years, so IMO there's nothing to fix.)
posted by doubtful_guest at 11:45 AM on November 29, 2007


RE: maudlin

hahaha! Touché!
posted by smartless at 11:45 AM on November 29, 2007


I don't personally know the consequences of not using soap, but there is a scientific explaination as to why cleaning yourself with soap is better than just water.

Much of the dirt and oil on your body is not watersoluable. Soap is both oil soluable and water soluable, which means that dirt will stick to the soap, which will in turn stick to the water. Its kind of a glue that helps stick oil to water.

There are also more detailed explainations of how soap works online.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:45 AM on November 29, 2007


You sometimes use shave gel to shave your legs and armpits

Depending on the brand of shaving gel, it may contain the same ingredients as liquid soap. Face wash and shampoo are soap (i.e. they perform the same function as soap). So soap is being used.

The only health risks would be in places where skin is folded back on skin - armpits, butt, groin, etc. - because bacteria and other things can build up and develop out of normal balance. I would doubt that there would be a health risk to some random flat smooth well-ventilated part of the body.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:46 AM on November 29, 2007


Seconding what burnmp3s said. Avoiding soap probably won't cause any health problems, but avoiding it won't prevent any either. Various skin oils can trap bacteria and other nasties and it might not get removed by cleaning with just water. My skin gets a bit oily if I don't use soap at least every other shower.

It's sort of like getting vaccinated. If you don't get a polio vaccine, it's not going to cause any health problems. If you're never exposed to polio, it won't matter. But should you come into contact with polio, that vaccine is going to prevent infection.

Most people either don't have any nastiness on their skin or their immune system can deal with it if they do. But if one happen to have something nasty on skin and they get cut, it could cause infection. Regular soap cleaning could reduce the chances of this. However, how common that may be I can only guess at (and I imagine it's probably pretty rare).
posted by Nelsormensch at 12:04 PM on November 29, 2007


Anecdotally, if I don't use soap to wash myself in the shower I get itchy after three days and little red bumps appear on my skin. They promptly go away after soaping up.

Your soap milage may vary.
posted by lekvar at 12:09 PM on November 29, 2007


My skin gets a bit oily if I don't use soap at least every other shower.

The reason I don't like using body soap is that my skin is quite dry - it becomes itchy and irritated when I use soap.... I suppose if I was sweating a lot (this hardly ever happens), I would use a little soap to get rid of the oil. However, generally I am lacking in body grease.
posted by smartless at 12:13 PM on November 29, 2007


Various skin oils can trap bacteria and other nasties and it might not get removed by cleaning with just water.

Do you have a cite for this?

All types of creatures with skin have been on this earth for thousands of years and have done just fine without soap. We need oil in our skin to keep it from drying and cracking.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:13 PM on November 29, 2007


The outer layer of your skin is composed of dead cells that form a protective barrier. That's your first defense against infection, and why you don't often get an infection on unbroken skin. I would think hat a bit of warm, clean water and light scouring with a clean flannel will take care of most dirt because you are removing some of that outer layer-- dirt, germs, and all. If your water source is chlorinated, that's probably even more effective. In fact, daily soaping of parts that aren't really dirty is probably not that good for you if it results in overly dry skin. Skin oil is water soluble if you increase the temperature of the water enough.

So, I don't see where it would be a health problem. There are ways soap is a good thing, as Pastabagel indicated. It's probably good to use soap when you are shaving because you are probably scraping some skin off, even if you can't see it.
posted by zennie at 12:14 PM on November 29, 2007


I don't feel clean without soap. My whole body feels like a glazed donut if I don't use it.
posted by zorro astor at 12:28 PM on November 29, 2007


As others have said, the shampoo and gels and whatnot are breaking down the grease in the same way if you used that.

A lot of what we refer to as soap is not technically soap - it's just a detergent (as was referenced in this video from a FPP a while back).

Soap is a very old invention. Humans have had a need for soap long before they had a need for other things -- including toothbrushes. So yes, we survived without it. But it's been important enough that most cultures have some version of it.

On a more anecdotal note:
I had a friend who was allergic to soap. Yes, there are plenty of clean, non-oily people allergic to soap who've found other ways to eliminate grease. But he was not one of them.

He didn't smell bad, per say, but he was visible greasy. His skin, his hair. Healthwise, I'm sure he was fine. But in the dating department and getting people to sit next to him, he had some issues.
posted by Gucky at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2007


No opinion here, just making a suggestion. Are you posters using the word "soap" to include all cleansing substances? Or are you trying to distinguish "soap" from other non-soap cleansers. The above thread is getting a bit muddled, e.g., I don't use soap, but I do use face wash or shampoo.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:33 PM on November 29, 2007


Sounds like you could use some of Dr. Bamford's No Soap.
posted by YoungAmerican at 12:43 PM on November 29, 2007


I spent a few years not using soap between my knees and my ankles, starting as an experiment and eventually continuing it to save time (getting up at 4:30 AM will make you cut a lot of corners.) There were no discernible effects.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:48 PM on November 29, 2007


"The above thread is getting a bit muddled, e.g., I don't use soap, but I do use face wash or shampoo"

The original idea is that I use types of cleansers (soap or not) on my face and hair, but not my body. Some incidental soaping may occur when shaving.
posted by smartless at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2007


By "soap" I meant all those surfactants mixed with water and used for personal hygiene. Based on the question, I took for granted that the asker meant bar soap or shower gel used to clean most of the body.

Soap is a very old invention indeed. One of my organic chemistry professors thinks that it may have been invented when some ancestor spilled melted fat into the ashes of an open fire, and discovered that the resulting gunk had interesting properties. So it could have been invented any time after we learned to cook food. However, it's my opinion that that the modern inventions of clean water and basic first aid knowledge have become just as important as soap, if not more so.
posted by zennie at 12:53 PM on November 29, 2007


i don't think there would be health consequences as long as you cleaned any cuts or blisters.

there might be some social consequences if the person in question has, perhaps, misjudged their scent or their oiliness. but assuming they have independent, impartial confirmation of their general cleanliness, then it doesn't really matter how you get there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2007


Much of the dirt and oil on your body is not water soluble. Soap is both oil soluble and water soluble, which means that dirt will stick to the soap, which will in turn stick to the water. Its kind of a glue that helps stick oil to water.

You know how they are always worried about the survival rate of birds that get bathed after an oil spill? Something about them losing all the essential oils on their skin. All kinds of animals have specific oils that they secrete. These oils are a part of the machine, and I figure they must have some purpose. You don't here about monkeys or cats or cows or any other creatures needing regular daily soapy showers, do you?

Without giving too much away here, there may have been, umm... some times in my life when I might have gone quite a few days without a shower. In these cases, after really soaping up and cleaning thoroughly, the next morning I feel icky, dry, almost hungover. These experiences might have led me to the belief that frequent thorough cleaning is actually not all that natural and not all that healthy.

My theory: natural body oils are good, soap is bad.

And hey, I get plenty of action, thanks, so keep those snarky comments to yourselves!! :)
posted by Meatbomb at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2007


I took for granted that the asker meant bar soap or shower gel used to clean most of the body.

I don't think these semantics change the question in a significant way.
posted by smartless at 12:57 PM on November 29, 2007


The original idea is that I use types of cleansers (soap or not) on my face and hair, but not my body. Some incidental soaping may occur when shaving.

Basically, your friend is trying to tell you that you're dirtier and that, long term, you'll get sick more often? You and I pretty much share the same cleaning routine, it sounds like, and your friend is wrong wrong wrong.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:57 PM on November 29, 2007


Do you have a cite for this?

Sorry, I thought it was obvious. Acne is the most common result of skin oil trapping nastiness on your skin. Acne is worse for teens (especially males) as the androgen hormones of puberty both enlarge the sebaceous (oil producing) glands and increase their product of sebum (skin oil). Of course, it's very easy to go overboard on cleaning, as this dermatologist discusses. That's why dermatologists stress gently washing with a mild soap, but not washing so hard you scour your face off. As for things worse than acne, I'm sure it's possible, but likely pretty rare, as I mentioned above. I'm not disagreeing with the general consensus that, acne aside, lack of soap is going to have adverse health effects. I'm saying that there are probably some rare instances where washing with soap would prevent a health issue that would occur otherwise. Plus some people, like me, just feel get to feeling oily and generally grimy when not rocking the soap.

All types of creatures with skin have been on this earth for thousands of years and have done just fine without soap.

The "we lived for thousands of years without {X}, and we were just fine" isn't usually a very compelling arugment. We were doing "fine" before penicillin as well, except for when you got a bacterial infection your immune system couldn't handle. Without antibiotics, it's possible to get a fatal bacterial infection from something as minor as a cat scratch (again, not likely, but possible).

Anecdote: I ended up in the ER about six months ago with a massive staph infection near the nailbed of one finger due to a tiny little cut I got trimming my finger nails. The tip of the finger was nearly double its normal side and totally engorged with pus. I even took some antibiotics once it had gotten red and swollen, but apparently due to limited blood flow near the nailbed (or something like that, the ER doc wasn't going into great detail), the antibiotics didn't have much effect. I got it lanced and everything cleared up, but in times of less sterilization and sanitation, something as trivial as that could have been a death sentence if it has turned into blood poisoning or something similar.

I realize AskMeFI isn't really for thread-like discussions, so if you have something further, feel free to hit up my MeFiMail.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:17 PM on November 29, 2007


I'm not disagreeing with the general consensus that, acne aside, lack of soap is going to have adverse health effects.

Dammit, is *not* going to have adverse health effects.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:19 PM on November 29, 2007


As long as you use soap to wash your hands, you should be fine.
posted by emd3737 at 1:21 PM on November 29, 2007


The issue of oil varies a lot between people, though, so it is hard to generalise about "what will happen" without soap.

I use gentle soap but I always, always have to moisturise after bathing or my skin gets dry, year round. I am pretty sure I could never use soap and it would be 5 or more days before anything got greasy. My husband however, also uses soap and never uses moisturiser, and couldn't go that long without getting a bit, umm, glowy.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:23 PM on November 29, 2007


I think if you live in an antibacterial world, some of the scenarios above which advocate soap use may be valid - I believe people do lose a lot of their natural antiseptic properties in this modern age. But . . . I lived without soap for about three years (due to war), as did most of the people around me. Likewise, there was no access to lengthy warm water showers and even shampoo. We sponge-bathed a lot and usually only "washed" with water. The result? We had great skin! Great hair too! The one caveat to all this was that ultimately, I had some problems due to a very poor diet, as did others, which couldn't be traced to using soap or not - ultimately my hair got weak and fell out a lot, until a proper diet was restored. I've got no problems with it now.

Very few teenagers had acne after the first few months of soap deprivation. I don't mean to sound gross, but I think once one's natural oils start flowing unimpeded by soap, your body adjusts to the consequences. Acne was unusual.

I think it's the routine that matters. If you clean with soap and shampooo every day, your body to that. If you don't, your body adjusts to that. But I doubt that using soap matters one way or the other, as long as you stick to some regimen of cleanliness consistently.

That aside, I'm a total clean freak and wouldn't feel right without soap, shampoo, body wash and a million other products with every shower!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:40 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have no idea about whether or not soap is healthy. However, I grew up with, went to school with, and went to college with a lot of hippies, many of whom believed strongly in the negative effects of soap, deodorant, and other "unnatural" products.

Basically, you need to get someone you really trust to tell you if you smell good or not. Some people can avoid soap and other products, and smell great. Others, not so much. A good daily rinsing cuts a lot of the funk, but there are definitely people who need more serious armpit intervention. The commonality, though, is that both the smelly soapless people and the non-smelly soapless people insist that they smell great... whether or not they really do. Get outside confirmation from someone with a good nose before being sure that you smell as good as you think you do. If they give the thumbs-up, and you aren't suffering any ill-effects, I'd say keep on with what you are doing.

Personally, I have to use soap (or a soap-equivalent) every day, because if I don't I smell bad. But I get really dry skin, so I am careful to use only gentle soaps, and I only use it on the necessary areas -- if I do that head-to-toe lathering that I see in the movies, I turn into a big rashy bundle of itch.
posted by Forktine at 1:43 PM on November 29, 2007


As long as you use soap to wash your hands, you should be fine.

Yeah, that doesn't seem to have been previously mentioned. But I would think twice about coming to your house for dinner if I knew that (a) you only rinsed your hands with water, no matter what you did in the bathroom, and (b) you were cooking the meal.

Other than that, I agree that one can live mostly without soap.
posted by beagle at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2007


I guess I wonder how you came into this routine of shampooing and using a facial cleanser but not a body cleanser. You do use a deodorant, so you obviously feel that something is necessary on your body, and you use shaving gel--why stop there? Or, on the flip side, why do anything at all? I'm curious.

To answer: I doubt there are any real adverse health problems, but I doubt there are any benefits to what you are doing that would convince someone else to go your route, or get them off your back if they are giving you a hard time.

I assume you wash your hands before, say, preparing any kind of food?
posted by misha at 1:50 PM on November 29, 2007


I used to forgot soap a lot when traveling for sports, but when I washed my hair my shampoo would rinse down and act as a body wash of sorts. Unless you a bald, you probably use shampoo, so you aren't really soap-less.
posted by melissam at 2:08 PM on November 29, 2007


Sorry, I thought it was obvious. Acne is the most common result of skin oil trapping nastiness on your skin. Acne is worse for teens (especially males) as the androgen hormones of puberty both enlarge the sebaceous (oil producing) glands and increase their product of sebum (skin oil).

Nelsormensch, I was looking for a cite that shows skin oil traps bacteria. I've always understood it to be keratin that causes the blockages, trapping oil underneath, not the oil itself.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:19 PM on November 29, 2007


This is a fight that my step-mom (soap user) and father (heels-dug-in non soap user) have when I am visiting occasionally. Both are pretty normal people, you'd never know one used soap and one basically refused to on some sort of general principle.

They have both run to the Internet to get documents supporting their positions which they wave in my direction. However what it comes down to is my Dad doesn't smell, he looks fine, he washes his hands a normal amount to keep from his sneeziness getting on someone, or after he uses the bathroom, and everything after that, I am convinced is just holy war territory.

I bathe as little as I can get away with, personally. This means often lately since I swim, and was very little in earlier winters when I didn't. The only time this is a problem (looks, smells, whatever) is when someone else decides to make a big deal of it, which they tend to, for whatever reason.
posted by jessamyn at 2:47 PM on November 29, 2007


I think it all really depends on your skin type. If, as you say, you've done this for some time with no ill effects, what's the problem? I, too, have super-sensitive skin- even baby soap makes me break out on occasion, so I stick to shampoo and am fine. That said, I'm not very oily and don't produce much sweat. If I did, it might be more problematic. I think I'd think twice about this with a kid, but for an adult who knows where needs to be cleaned and how vigorously, I don't see a problem.
posted by arnicae at 2:53 PM on November 29, 2007


I've had no issues resulting from lack of soap. Or, at least none that I'm aware of. I've never reliably used soap in the shower. I take hot showers daily and mostly rely on cheap rough washcloths. I do use shampoo daily and face cleanser every few days. I don't put gunk on my face or hair, so I don't have to use harsher products to remove the gunk residue. If my skin is very dry, about once a week I'll use a heavily moisturized (Aveeno) shower wash.

I wash my hands with soap all the time. They are frequently dry and sometimes cracked because I'm a little obsessive about clean hands. I bite my nails and worry about staph infections. My kid had nail biter staph infections more than once, he uses soap. I have never had such an infection.
posted by ick at 3:13 PM on November 29, 2007


It's pretty funny because I do just the opposite. I've more or less given up on shampoo and rinse only with water. On the other hand, one day without soap in the armpit area and I smell like, as the wife says, 'a goat with a hygiene problem'.

But, yeah, wash your hands.
posted by lumpenprole at 3:26 PM on November 29, 2007


The commonality, though, is that both the smelly soapless people and the non-smelly soapless people insist that they smell great... whether or not they really do. Get outside confirmation from someone with a good nose before being sure that you smell as good as you think you do.

I think this is also kind of a weird random hormone/ type issue - that people who smell different from you are more likely to be noticeable to you as smelling "bad", so that people often won't smell themselves, or won't smell certain other people, but will smell some people. And there are even the particular kinds of smells noticed, like northern europeans being more 'piggish' and southern europeans being more 'funky'. In times when people bathed less, people used a lot more masking perfumes, oils, incense & so on, to make up for it, but there was also just a larger cultural interest in the scents of others. it was an obvious factor of sexual interest, and I think some degree of dislike could be related to subtle responses to the way other people smelled, too.

Basically, smells are a strong factor of animal instinct - and when we lived in societies where body odor was more normal, we responded to how much we liked or disliked people's odors in a more directly instinctive way. There are some animalistic type traits that are still important - how tall people are, for instance, probably has subconscious impacts on how we treat one another that come straight from the instinctive part of the mind - but because we mostly all bathe regularly, the part that individual odors play in our relationships has been reduced.

Since it's only occasional people who really smell at all now (even perfume is annoying to a lot of people), we might notice it as an anomaly, rather than noticing it as a particular kind of smell which is positive or negative, but still it will probably come across differently to different people (I have noticed this in working out - what is offensive to some people seems just like healthy sweat to others, and vice versa - it's not just how sensitive someone is, but how sensitive they are to your body type / diet / hormones / yadda yadda)
posted by mdn at 4:01 PM on November 29, 2007


Misha: I wear makeup that doesn't come off with water, so I need some sort of facial cleanser. And with my hair, I have to wash it or it looks less than optimal (thin, super-fine hair doesn't deal well with any amount of oil). Plus I color my hair, so I have to put some moisture back in somehow, so I use conditioner.

And yes, of course I wash my hands with soap, and they're dry and itchy because of it, no matter how much hand cream I use. (I never feel like my hands are clean if I have lotion on them... Is it irrational to think that the lotiony moisture is a breeding ground for germs? Yes, I know I sound completely neurotic.)
posted by doubtful_guest at 4:25 PM on November 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


Strangely, today's Salon has a relevant feature. Here's a quote:

"What did clean mean in ancient Rome?

If you were a man, you would take off all your clothes, put a little oil on your body, rub it with dust and go out into the playing field to work up a sweat. Then you would get somebody to scrape off your perspiration with an instrument that looks like a little tiny rake, called a strigil. Then you would get into a tepid bath, then into a really hot bath, then into a cold bath.

You never used any soap, and it was all done in public. If you were just a normal person, you'd probably spend a couple of hours every day in the bathhouse, where you could get wine, food, sex, a medical treatment, a haircut. You could have a depilator pluck the hair in your armpits.

Why wasn't soap popular?

Soap was a combination of animal fat and lye. The Egyptians went to great lengths to make a soap that was mild enough to use on bodies, but many cultures, including the Romans and Greeks, didn't really. So they scraped themselves. Basically, it was a kind of drastic exfoliation. They probably got as clean as soap makes you. Most people, except very rich people, didn't use soap until about the second half of the 19th century."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:27 PM on November 29, 2007


this thread makes me feel validated. i don't use soap on my body (arms, legs, tummy, etc) in a daily shower either.

i do use shampoo and conditioner. i use shaving gel on legs and pits as needed. but i do use soap (cetaphil bar) on my nether bits and pits every day because those are the areas that get smelly faster and i get "owies" there if i don't keep it clean and dry.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:10 AM on November 30, 2007


You have just described my daily shower routine. I have very dry skin, and soap only makes it worse - my skin gets drier and very itchy and it is all-around uncomfortable. I scrub the same areas most people would with soap, except I use water and a washcloth. I don't think I've suffered any ill effects from my non-soapy lifestyle, and I can't image there would be any negative health risks associated with it. It probably just depends on your body chemistry whether you can skip the soap or not.
posted by meggan at 9:02 PM on December 1, 2007


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