Alternatives to showering? (write-my-story-filter)
July 14, 2017 11:41 PM   Subscribe

If someone from the far-future who was used to magically clean skin had to start cleaning himself for the first time, what would he try and what mistakes would he make? I'm looking for unusual methods of keeping clean, drawbacks thereof, and unusual mistakes to make with the usual methods.

I'm working on a short story about a space-faring society where all forms of bathing have been replaced by a carefully engineered skin microbiome that metabolises sweat and dead skin, and inhibits infectious and odor-causing bacteria. Our intrepid and pleasantly minty protagonists land on a lush new world, whose local biology is so compatible with theirs disrupts their skin micro-biomes, forcing them to try increasingly zany and desperate hygiene measures from the depths of their history.

To give you an idea of their mind-set, bathing is largely a medical procedure, to be done after exposure to hazardous materials or before emergency surgery. (Before routine surgery, they culture the incision site to check for pathogens, and if that comes up negative they'll only disinfect the instruments.) They are not supplied or equipped for routine bathing, nor do most of them have never done it before.
posted by d. z. wang to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Ugh ,"and most of them have never done it before."
posted by d. z. wang at 11:43 PM on July 14, 2017

They could see some birds bathing in dirt and start rubbing dirt on themselves.
posted by bleep at 11:46 PM on July 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

What problem is most important to them (or to each character) to solve as soon as they realize they've become... unclean? Whatever it is, they'll try to solve it. They'll feel gross, and I think "put yourself under that water over there" might still be an instinctual response to that. But if some of them just hate smelling gross, they might repeat history by slathering themselves in ever-thicker layers of perfume until the fashion in their little micro-civilization shifts from "clean" to heavily painted and scented.

How do they experience bad smell/lack of cleanliness in their everyday life before this? What analogies will they draw when it happens to them?
posted by Polycarp at 12:11 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

The inventor of Soylent, a complete meal-replacement drink, once took part in a water conservation challenge. Among other things, he took a high-dose antibiotic to kill his gut flora and consumed nothing but fiber-free Soylent... causing him to go almost a week without pooping. Since solid waste is largely made of dead bacteria, this "lifehack" can apparently work indefinitely.

I'd put your futuristic spacefolk on a similar diet for similar reasons -- water is precious! -- and extend their engineered microbiome internally to eliminate, um, elimination. Once their robo-flora is crowded out by native germs and they're forced to eat real fiber, I imagine it would be pretty hilarious for them to slowly re-discover the mythical art of taking a dump, with all the potty-training jokes and toilet iconography that goes with it. How did these strange porcelain thrones work without electricity? Why were the ancients so divided on which way to spool their "toilet paper"? Was it some kind of philosophical dilemma, like the great schism of Sitting vs. Standing? Speaking of which, it sure is damn hard to find something as effective as T.P. in the wild. And to think primitive children used to throw whole rolls of them into the treetops! Prank? Celebration? Religious ritual? To somebody reduced to wiping with bizarre alien leaves, their profligacy is as strange as it is infuriating...

ninja edit: oh god, i almost forgot about farts. THEY CAN REINVENT FARTS.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:23 AM on July 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

Rinsing thoroughly can be tricky, and failing to rinse soap off adequately can lead to skin rashes, small areas that get dry and irritated (especially ear crevices and hairline, but other areas are hard to rinse too).

I was also just remembering the day, when I was a tiny child, when my father discovered that I only knew to wash my hands with cold water. He turned on warm water for me to rinse with and my _life_ _changed_ it was so good.

If you don't know how to focus most often on the most problematic areas and you clean every square centimeter with lather, abrade, rinse, fail-safe rinse, it can take a _long_ time.

For hair: not knowing about conditioner. Also, not rinsing shampoo out completely can be awful.

Oh, and shampoo/soap in the eyes is bad.

Oh, and for a tiny child: having your head under loud gushing water (as from a bathtub faucet) can be legitimately scary; it's loud. I used to have nightmares about other people washing my hair/drowning me as a child.

Not realizing that your cat doesn't enjoy bathing/showering as much as you do.
posted by amtho at 1:59 AM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Tudor era cleaning was mainly rubbing yourself with a dry cloth, apparently.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:21 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Overcleaning would be a problem since they are so used to being super clean all the time. So, using harsh chemicals, scrubbing too hard, being obsessed with being clean all day, too frequent hand washing etc....
posted by SyraCarol at 4:47 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Water in the ear would be a novel experience.
posted by quinndexter at 5:05 AM on July 15, 2017

Not getting wet before using soap - try rubbing shower gel over dry skin, it's gross (and then really hard to rinse off).

Not knowing to rinse. Not everyone rinses dishes so they may think just towelling off would be ok - or even that it's better, because the soap residue would continue cleaning the skin.

Then there are all the feminine hygiene issues. I genuinely met a woman once who douched regularly with bleach, and then wondered why she kept on getting cystitis (unfortunately her solution was "more bleach").
posted by tinkletown at 5:21 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you didn't know about showing, I think you'd wipe yourself down, like brushing dirt off pants.

I can't see a time when you don't need to brush something off your arms, clothing etc. So maybe they'd just wipe down with a damp cloth.
posted by Kalmya at 5:30 AM on July 15, 2017

Have them all sit in the sun and attempt to sanitize themselves that way. (Think "ancient" use as bleaching/disinfecting agent.) Write about ensuing horror when sweating commences. For material about horror when sweating occurs, try visiting a sauna in a city where people generally don't know what a sauna is for. Yes, they do exist, and yes, I have actually heard such conversations. In your case, add horror at sunburn as well. Can't tell you where to go to get material on that, since I live in a sunny state.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:54 AM on July 15, 2017

Whatever they use to disinfect instruments becomes their first body wash. Alcohol? Fire? Radiation?
If smell is the issue, they try rubbing themselves with nice smelling things with strong scents like... Pineapple. And get swarmed with insects or bears.
posted by rouftop at 8:03 AM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

They develop a fungal skin infection, consult the ancient Ask MetaFilter archives, and slather themselves with synthesized tea-tree oil, garlic, and yogurt. Result: It burns and they smell weird but still itch.
posted by limeonaire at 8:44 AM on July 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

In this society, how would they clean other things? If they've come up with an answer to keeping themselves clean then presumably there would also be ways they've figured out to clean the dishes, sink, floor, etc. I agree with everyone who is suggesting a cloth or rubbing some sort of powder (like baking soda in our time) or solvent on them would make sense as a likely first attempt. In Star Trek shows, there is the "sonic shower" concept as well.
posted by belau at 9:08 AM on July 15, 2017

Since people aren't walking around radiating pheromones at each other from warm pockets of trapped sweat and crotchal secretions, sexuality manifests differently in their society than in ours. Being on the asexuality spectrum is much more frequent and mainstream, although it does fluctuate during the different stages of life for some individuals. Romance is a high art, like in the middle ages. People who have sex do lots of cybering, chat sex, and fantasy-swapping with partners whose minds they are attracted to. To blow off tension, toys, robots, virtual worlds, and other advanced masturbation techniques have reached a high state of the art. Those people who choose to reproduce through predominantly biological means choose their mating partners through highly rational genetic calculations. Our astronauts are surprised, confused, a little disgusted, kind of obsessed, and really really happy when they start discovering their animalistic urges towards their stinky but incredibly compelling cohorts.

Sorry this doesn't answer the question about showering, though.
posted by matildaben at 10:50 AM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Forgetting under the fingernails

Cleaning open wounds/scratches/delicate places with alcohol

Getting soap in the eyes

Leaving conditioner on

Dry skin and not knowing about moisturizer

Noticing, for the first time, discoloration in pores

Fungal events when cleaning isn't assiduous enough

Split hair ends
posted by amtho at 11:08 AM on July 15, 2017

First thing they may think to try is swimming or bathing in local ponds or lakes. You may have that not work because some microbe in the water creates a dangerous rash. You'd need to invent some reason they couldn't just filter or distill it though.

The next thing they would probably try would be whatever cleaning agents they have on the ship. These may be in limited supply or too caustic for regular use.

The next thing they may try would be perfumes as Polycarp suggested.

They might try to kill bacteria with some kind of UV exposure.

Some people here try to use crystals to control body odor, so they may find some mineral or natural formation that works.

They may try to create a sonic shower (I think that's what Star Trek used). I guess the principle is that you vibrate the filth off you.
posted by willnot at 11:20 AM on July 15, 2017

Overuse of antibiotics

Accidentally killing wildlife by introducing detergents or lots of dirt into bodies of water?

Some people will decide to relieve themselves while bathing; other people will absolutely not understand or appreciate this.

Perfumed shampoo sometimes attracts bees or wasps. It can also repel others (who may have allergies or not like the scent)

Rough, dry skin can catch on fine or sheer fabrics

Very rough skin may not work with touch screens

Bathtubs and other hard, wet, waterproof surfaces can be very slippery.
posted by amtho at 12:47 PM on July 15, 2017

Freaking out when they notice their skin getting pruny. Freaking out when their nuts (or similar?) shrink up in cold water. Not being able to see clearly or breathe underwater.

Getting too hot-dehydrated in a bathhouse and fainting.

I think there's been some heated (ha) shower debates on metafilter recently too, like whether one showers facing the water or back to water.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:59 PM on July 15, 2017

(OMG that bleach story, tinkletown!)

OP, perhaps your future-person could walk past the window of a dog-washing place and see people washing their dogs, assume that's how humans get clean as well, and attempt to become a client.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:27 PM on July 15, 2017

Sand. A brush. Lava rock/pumice. Heat or cold. Crushing strong-smelling plants/flowers on themselves.
posted by stormyteal at 8:34 PM on July 15, 2017

Standing out in the rain.
Trying any version of the oil-and-strigil routine (but horribly scraping themselves).
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:58 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Follow-up: Our spacefarers, still itchy, again consult the ancient Ask MetaFilter archives, read about the supposed disinfecting power of colloidal silver, and apply and in some cases ingest some. Result: They're still itchy, and before long one such future human has skin that has permanently turned a vaguely bluish hue.

On their next search of the ancient archives, they read about antimicrobial copper-alloy touch surfaces, realize there are some on their ship, and laser off a few pieces. They try running these over their bodies, sort of like one of those stainless-steel odor-removing bars for the kitchen. They cut off some stainless-steel pieces for that purpose, too, for good measure. Result: ??? I'm not actually sure, but the notion of a possible solution being to just rub pieces of metal on their bodies seems intriguing...
posted by limeonaire at 9:51 AM on July 16, 2017

Also, reading this thread made me think that it could be interesting if our spacefarers decided to explore ancient alternative medicine and woo quackery, e.g., ion-producing salt lamps, essential oils, vitamin megadoses, etc. Maybe someone decides that basically marinating in some combination of vinegar and olive oil is best for killing bad bacteria and hydrating the skin. Maybe they decide salt scrubs and exfoliation will help the most. Maybe they start using skin-tightening masks. If they'd previously had perfect skin, they may not have explored cosmetics much yet, leaving them perhaps vulnerable to all kinds of mishaps thereof (e.g., inadvertently toxic foundation, harsh chemical peels). Or maybe they begin shaving body hair for dubious hygiene reasons, or perhaps there's a resurgence of practices like circumcision if that's died out in the future and they stay there long enough for babies to be born.
posted by limeonaire at 10:37 AM on July 16, 2017

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