Soap, Bacteria, and Acne
Ever since paleo hit the ground running, some of those in the movement have begun questioning other aspects of modern life that our paleolithic ancestors did not enjoy, and which might possibly have kept them healthier. For example, exposure to light and how it affects sleep and other aspects of health has come to attention; along with eating whole, unprocessed food and skipping the grains, we’ve begun to think about when and how often one eats that food.
Soap is one of those conveniences that our paleo ancestors didn’t have. Some people are following paleo to a logical conclusion and going without soap and furthermore are even coating themselves with beneficial bacteria.
Like many other parts of the body, such as the throat and the intestines, the skin has a microbiome, that is, a characteristic mix of bacteria that live on it. Science has been busy lately in uncovering all the ways that our indigenous bacteria affect our health, and has discovered that they affect it greatly, for example, they may predispose to or cure obesity, allergies, and chronic fatigue. Less is known about how our skin bacteria affects health, but it seems reasonable that they would, since we’ve evolved along with them and normally healthy people carry lots of bacteria on their skin. If antibiotics kill off normal intestinal bacteria and can worsen health, then quite possibly soap can derange our skin microbiota and also affect health for the worse.
Soap is basically a chemical for killing bacteria. Do we want massive bacteria-killing occurring every day when we shower? That seems unlikely.
While I haven’t gone so far as to give it up completely, I haven’t used soap or anything besides water on my face for many years, and results have been very good. For many years I suffered from adult acne, which is in some ways worse than adolescent acne, because at least when you’re a teenager people almost expect you to have it. When you’re middle-aged, not so much. (I figure if the late, great Seth Roberts could talk about his acne, then maybe I could.)
Ever since I stopped using soap on my face, no more acne. This obviously has something to do with the microbiome on my face becoming normalized. The main cause of acne is a bacterium called Propionibacterium acnes, so it could be that other bacteria are now out-competing them. Aside from that, the skin on my face looks much better now than before, with soap; it has a healthy glow and isn’t dry. (Worth noting is that I’ve also gone to a paleo diet, and I’m sure that has helped my skin also.)
The usual treatment for acne involves washing the face with strong soap, often with various antibacterial chemicals in it, sometimes several times a day. This obviously screws up the microbiome, the hope being that it kills off the bad bacteria. But it kills off all the bacteria. Going without soap on the face might be something worth trying if you suffer from acne.
Shampoo is a chemical stew that may be filled with endocrine disruptors. What this means is that if you’re a man, you don’t want the stuff on you, or at least you should be careful about choosing a type of shampoo that doesn’t disrupt your hormonal system.
I quit using shampoo years ago. On a number of other men’s sites, I’ve seen many declarations of non-use of shampoo. However, I wear my hair very short – the number one clipper blade – so going without shampoo presents no problem for me in keeping my hair clean. I just wash it with water in the shower daily. But if you wear your hair longer, I don’t know, you’d just have to try it if interested.
Another common habit that many men’s sites ascribe to is that of cold showers. And yes, I do that too. I used to take the type in which you get into a warm shower, then gradually turn it to cold. But for the past year or so I just step into cold water. It’s much better that way: it wakes you up with a blast of cold, and you leave it feeling invigorated. I recommend them.
However, is there any scientific evidence that cold showers do what those who take them say they do? Yes there is some, along with some speculation.
Cold showers cause a large increase in cardiac output, effectively making it a form of exercise, although the temperature of the water used was 2.5 degrees C., i.e. damn cold.
It’s been proposed that, with some evidence to back it up, cold showers may treat depression.
Exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and to increase synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain as well. Additionally, due to the high density of cold receptors in the skin, a cold shower is expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain, which could result in an anti-depressive effect. Practical testing by a statistically insignificant number of people, who did not have sufficient symptoms to be diagnosed with depression, showed that the cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms rather effectively. The therapy was also found to have a significant analgesic effect and it does not appear to have noticeable side effects or cause dependence.
In this case, the proposal calls for a water temperature of 20 degrees C., which is about 68 degrees F. I’ve measured the temperature of my shower water on occasion, and 68 degrees is very doable, cold but not severe. My current showers are, I believe, colder than that.
What really got me on to to cold showers was a proposal by the same scientist that they might treat chronic fatigue. As I had chronic fatigue at the time, and I was leaving no stone unturned, I immediately started taking them.
This work hypothesizes that repeated cold stress may reduce fatigue in CFS because brief exposure to cold may transiently reverse some physiological changes associated with this illness. For example, exposure to cold can activate components of the reticular activating system such as raphe nuclei and locus ceruleus, which can result in activation of behavior and increased capacity of the CNS to recruit motoneurons. Cold stress has also been shown to reduce the level of serotonin in most regions of the brain (except brainstem), which would be consistent with reduced fatigue according to animal models of exercise-related fatigue. Finally, exposure to cold increases metabolic rate and transiently activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis as evidenced by a temporary increase in the plasma levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone, beta-endorphin and a modest increase in cortisol. The increased opioid tone and high metabolic rate could diminish fatigue by reducing muscle pain and accelerating recovery of fatigued muscle, respectively.
I don’t have chronic fatigue anymore, so maybe it worked, but in any case I need to do whatever it takes to prevent its return, so I continue to take cold showers. They’re good for what ails you.
Nice article, Mr. Mangan.
Since you’re reviewing your routines, mind saying if you soap up your body for daily showers? Like you, I shower with cold water on most days, and I rarely wash my face with anything other than cold water. I also wear my hair very short, and eschew shampoo.
However, I use Dr. Bronner’s liquid castille soap and a loofah when scrubbing down for my cold showers. It gets me clean and odor-free and it’s invigorating. Also, no endocrine disruptors as far as I know. But I could see how maybe it disrupts bacteria; I never thought of that before.
BTW, I commented via twitter a few months back that I was starting a creatine + coconut oil facial routine a few months back, based on an intriguing study that suggested it might improve skin elasticity. I’m having an n=1 problem telling if the creatine makes any difference. However, I can at least attest that there aren’t any adverse affects (no swelling, redness, or the like).
Cold showers and no shampoo I do. My experience with no shampoo has been positive in that my hair brushes better. Have not tried giving up soap, and I use Grandpa’s Pine Tar soap, which I really love. I have also tried using just baking soda for brushing my teeth, or baking soda plus peppermint oil (spearmint, I believe, can inhibit testosterone production). Tea tree oil as an underarm deodorant is something I have done for years; baking soda may also work. In any case, these are really alternative methods rather than “going without” as Dennis is advocating.
My wholly unscientific view is also that a paleo-style diet lower in wheat and sugar tends not to result in as much BO in the first place. Don’t know if others have had that experience.
If you’re trying to avoid xenoestrogens I’d suggest cutting out the tea tree oil too: https://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/february2007/02122007boys.htm
Thanks for the information and link.
Regarding acne, I suspect the main driver here was your switch to a paleo diet rather than omitting soap. Some recent studies have linked acne to carbohydrate ingestion. Paleo fans claim that getting rid of acne is one of the diet’s benefits, and I’ve noticed that fasting massively improved my own adult acne (with unchanged washing/cleaning routine). I’ve also seen plenty of obviously unwashed people with acne, so that link is rather dubious IMO, although that may well depend on the specific cleaning substances used.
I’ve been on cold showers and no soap above the neck for a few years. Rinse with water and that’s it. So many people scrub away at their face then apply moisturizer to it to replace what they just scrubbed off – it makes no sense whatsoever to me.
Cold showers feel great. Apartment living in Manhattan with a water tank on the roof means that the cold water varies greatly in temperature from winter to summer. It only reaches 2.5 C in the winter is my guess.
I switched to castille soap several months back and the last remnants of my dermatitis disappeared. Eating paleo reduced it by about 80%, it seems the remaining 20% was a reaction to the regular soap.
As for my head, I tried going without shampoo and my skin (my hair is buzzed) became flaky and dry. After reading this article I suspect it may be the hot showers drying out my skin, and the lack of conditioners without shampoo allow it to manifest. I will do a n=1 and switch to cold showers sans shampoo.
Thanks all for the comments. I’m rather reluctant to discuss matters of personal hygiene. Believe it or not, this post was pushing the envelope for me. I was raised Catholic and I still have a strong sense of propriety. But anyway, I don’t go totally soapless. Also, Dr. Bronner’s is one of the types of soap I came across some time ago that seems to be without any endocrine disruptors. They should base an advertising campaign on that.
I’m sure that paleo eating has had a lot to do with no acne. But the timing of my switch, which was years ago so I’m having trouble remembering exactly, makes me think that no soap on the face had a pronounced effect for the better. As a matter of fact, I believe I read about no soap on the face on Seth’s blog.
Damn, Steve, those are some cold showers you get in the winter. Respect. Don’t think I could handle that.
Was/is there an adjustment time from the no-soap switch to the adult acne clear-up? That is, did your acne increase some at first, then to decrease once your face got used to it or normalized? I suffer from AA as well, so am considering this change. Thanks in advance.
No, I don’t think there was.
I went soap & shampoo-free a couple of years ago after reading a post on Richard Nikoley’s site, FreeTheAnimal (paleo blogger). I still use soap for washing hands, but rarely for much else. So far, so good. The biggest thing I noticed was how my hair reacted. At first, my hair became — as you would expect — very oily, and I ended up shampooing it every few days. However, pretty quickly — over the course of a couple of weeks — my hair seemed to realize “hey, I don’t need to make all this oil all the time, he’s not washing it all away at every opportunity”. Oil production quickly declined. For a while I still needed to at least scrub it vigorously with hot water to keep the oiliness in check. Now, even that’s not necessary. My hair is soft, smooth, and not at all oily, regardless of what I do with it. So I’d recommend this change wholeheartedly.
I started cold showers (actually, they’re usually contrast showers, but with an emphasis on cold) last fall, after reading about their affect on heart rate variability (over at Todd Becker’s blog, GettingStronger). These have proved a valuable tool. I think their most noticeable effects are (1) a sedative effect, which is useful around bedtime, and (2) after doing something like deadlifts that leave the CNS way over-stimulated, they’re great for calming the body down. I used to have a hard time sleeping at night after a day where I’d done hard deadlifts, but once I started getting some cold water exposure afterwards, this problem largely went away. (Contrast showers are also good for muscle soreness.)
The synthetic chemical stew in body care products is part of the reason why my wife and I started a bath and body care products company this past winter.
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Here’s a tip. Use a half a spoon full of xylitol (the substitute sugar) when you brush your teeth with toothpaste or whatever. My understanding is bacteria like it but can’t handle the sugar and it kills them. Seems to cut plaque. Taste great. Don’t swallow.
Hey Mangan, fascinating post. A question about cold showers: what about people who have, say, damaged immune systems, or people who are recovering from a bad viral illness, in which their bodies are already under strain? Is there a point at which additional stress–from a cold shower– has a negative effect on a person, whereas for a healthy person that same hormetic stress does wonders?
Thanks, LG. Yes, there likely is a point of too much stress, just as an ill person can’t exercise much due to fatigue. Definitely anyone with an infectious illness should be careful. With cardiovascular problems, the person should probably use the same precautions with cold showers that he would with exercise.
Any thoughts on deodorants?
I don’t use them and have no need for them. Some of them are loaded with endocrine disruptors. Not to mention that they disrupt pheromone signaling, which believe it or not is important in sexual relations.
I use baking soda or rubbing alcohol..
The little woman & I switched over from antiperspirant sprays to deoderant sprays a couple of years ago to purge the dreaded aluminium. I take a bottle along in my gym bag in case it wears off, which did happen a couple of times back when I used to sweat a lot during workouts. (I don’t sweat much at all now, apparently an effect of losing some insulating fat.)
I can’t imagine going deoderant-free though…I do get BO.
We also switched over to alu-free toothpaste.
Without knowing of this article, I cut way back on shampoo use myself a few months ago. Less static & fewer fly-away bad hair days! I shall have to look into these endocrine disruptors.
Germans have a thing called “alternating” showers, where you alternate between warm & cold. I’ve done it in the past…damn. I don’t mind admitting I’m mostly a warm-showerer. I’ll take a thermometer up there next time and see what 20°C is like though.
(“Warm-showerer”, “soft-egg”, and “women-understander” are three German perjoratives for guys you think are a bit “soft”, FWIW. Not nearly as harsh as calling someone a “pu$$y” though, I think, a more humourous intent.)
Toothpaste is an additional battle ground.
True. I use one without fluoride, a substance more toxic than lead.
I wash with coconut oil in the shower .it absorbs well
Hi Dennis, I am struggling at the moment with trying to co-ordinate my various routines – most of which you have mentioned individually in other posts, but I am not familiar with one where you explicitly ‘bring it all together’, in terms of timings. I was therefore wondering if you could shed some light here – currently I lift weights in a brief/ heavy ‘body by science’ super-slow style, on a 2 way body-part split, Mondays and Friday lunchtimes. I do HIIT once a week in the form of Tabata sprints on Wednesdays. All done fasted from 6pm the previous evening. BCAAs immediately prior to each of the 3 training sessions (17-18 hour fast), whey protein isolate straight after the workout and then on to PWO lunch, usually oily fish.. I have just decided to take my antioxidant supplements the morning after my workout days, ie Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, with my breakfast. Reason here being that I have read that taking antioxidants after a workout can blunt the internal production of glutathione and other endogenous antioxidants. So far so good I hope? My question to you though is where should I put the cold showers in this routine.. I came across the following article that concluded that taking a cold shower post-workout can attenuate muscle gains for up to 2 days: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP270570/abstract
So whilst at the moment I am currently taking cold showers at around 8am on the mornings of my 3 training days, I am wondering whether I should switch them to my ‘off days’ – but then I would have the conflict with the antioxidants taken on my off days (I read that antioxidants also supposedly dampen the positive effects of cold showers, in exactly the same way as they do following exercise).. What do you do currently? I read that you take very cold showers each morning, but would that not negatively impact protein synthesis on your training days? Or do you believe that the effect of the cold shower has ‘dampened down’ by the time you begin your workout? Many thanks in advance for any light you can shed on this pretty confusing area!
Hi Rob, I came across that same study myself. One thing is that this was cold-water immersion for 10 minutes. The abstract doesn’t say how cold the water was, but I’m assuming that it was quite cold. So, it seems like a lot more cold water exposure than I get from a cold shower. Most of my cold showers are taken pre-exercise, but I do take them post- as well. Mine noramlly last only a minute or two.
All in all, it’s something to be aware of: no prolonged cold water exposure after exercise would seem to be a good idea.
Thanks Dennis! Let’s keep our eyes peeled for when they do studies on the effect of brief cold showers (which is what I do too).. Mind you, if (as I believe) most of the impact comes from the sudden ‘shock’ of cold, then my hypothesis is that a 2 minute cold shower wouldn’t have too dissimilar an effect to 10 minutes immersion (so long as the shower is cold enough to give the body a powerful shock..)
Time to fly my freak-flag: I stopped using shampoo, conditioner, and soap a few months ago. Showering means water-only cleaning, and the only difference so far is that my hair is way nicer than it’s ever been. My next experiment is quitting toothpaste; I’ll still floss and brush, but it’ll be water-only. From what I read, it seems like all we really need to clean our bodies is water, and the colder the better.
The chronic fatigue hack might just be due to a couple of factors. Cold showers definitely revitalize me, at least through the immediate future but I don’t recall taking any note of how I feel through out the day after one.
I too had a recent bout of chronic fatigue and long into my paleo lifestyle change. Now, I attribute much of that to having a candida over growth condition (Well, I wasn’t completely paleo) but also over training, particularly when my workouts fall too close to one another for a few weeks. When I workout, I feel that a successful workout is one where I blast myself completely. An unfortunate down side to doing this regularly is that it really, really taxes the body, which is the point, I guess. But, sometimes the day afters can be a tough slog….and when I had full blown candida, those days would be seemingly insurmountable.
I don’t experience too much of that any longer and I haven’t had a cold shower in a while. For me personally, I think its the greater space between leviathan workouts and my whole sale eradication of candida. Cold showers are still a nice novelty from time to time though.
I think all of us on the Paleo diet should give up the Sham -poo And just use real poo Instead !
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