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Book Talk

Clean: A Doctor Dishes on Dirt

Photo Credit: Kasia Cieplak Mayr Von Baldegg

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We chat up Dr. James Hamblin, author of Clean: The New Science of Skin, on what it means to be clean—and how much your skin really needs all those suds, soaps, and sanitizers.

We are suddenly more submerged in the idea of bathing than ever in this pandemic era. Hand sanitizer. Disinfectant. Handwashing to verses of “Happy Birthday” to reach that magic 20 seconds of wash time and suddenly finding ourselves on the brink of birthday song sanity. Nevermind the opposing great shower debate (if we’re all working from home, can we bathe less? Must we wash our hair today?). It may shock you to know that our modern “think clean” mindset is actually, well, pretty modern—with the population only streamlining hand soap in the home in the last 150 years. But is it all necessary? Here, we chat up Dr. James Hamblin, author of Clean: The New Science of Skin, on what it means to be clean—and how much your skin really needs all those suds, soaps, and sanitizers.    

What do you say to someone who doesn’t feel clean unless their skin squeaks? 

That’s fine. I'm not trying to change anyone’s mind, and I don't think I could. I set out to explore why we do what we do and what the effects are. If people want to know about that and want to try and do less—to save time, money, water, plastic bottles, whatever—I'm happy to talk options. But they have to come to that decision for themselves.

If someone wants to buy soap that is more ethical, what should they look for? You discuss palm oil for example, and carbon footprint of shipping.

Locally sourced, vegan, organic, and fair-trade. All are enforced and meaningful to various degrees, but think of these things similarly to how you might be conscious about buying food. You can also buy detergents that might have a smaller imprint than soap itself, even if it's not “natural.” And I'd be skeptical of any soap products that are for “sensitive skin” or whatnot because they tend to be diluted with water or emollients that just make them less effective. You can get the same effect by buying a pure soap and using less of it. Hence, smaller footprint.

I remember being astounded when my grandmother once said, “Oh, that was before shampoo.” Are most people surprised, like me, how recently soap and shampoo became commercial products?

Absolutely. The idea of everyone having soap in their home is new to the last 150 years—much less multiple kinds of soap (and detergents like shampoo). We got used to it really quickly because the industries flooded us with marketing that created a sense of normalcy, invoking beauty, health, class—all the things we care about. The products became proxies for that caring.

Do you feel differently about some of the things discussed in the book now that we’re in the era of COVID-19? I’m thinking of soap, hand sanitizer, and bidets. 

No, I think it all holds up—except maybe that a lot of people are currently already experimenting with less showering, so that idea seems a little less anathema.  

What is the most harmful effect of the skincare industry? (Wasted money? Or damage to skin?)

I think the industry does a lot of good, as well as harm. Overall, the basic issue is perpetuating obsessiveness over appearances and standards of beauty that center on a very narrow definition. Like the soap industry before it, there's a lot capitalization on insecurity—creating insecurity in order to create a sense of need and, so, demand for products. Marketing sets a cultural agenda that we all internalize. By comparison, wasted money or unhelpful products themselves are trivial. 


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