My friend Moxie Marlinspike relates in a zine a tale of going to see a doctor about a persistent skin rash. He explains to the physician that that the rash is somewhat itchy, but mostly it just won’t go away. What is it? What should he do? The doctor inspects, opens an alcohol wipe, scrubs. The ‘rash’ comes right off. “Dirt.”, she says.
These days, it seems not-bathing is the province of punks, homebums, the mentally impaired, and other peoples I generally hold in high esteem. People tell us we should bathe, we resist. Deodorant, soaps, perfumes, aren’t these products of a capitalist society? Aren’t we being sold a sad removal of our wild nature? Isn’t soap the first step into soul-crushing civilization?
Sort of, and also not at all. And, as is often the case, things get more interesting the more you look into them. Also, the more you look, the more our knee-jerk reaction lines up with the sorts of religious feeling that are just out of memory.
Let’s start with a glimpse into European history. In the book Q by Luther Blisset, our hero, a European radical, survives the Reformation fighting for his ideals, freedom, etc, and finally escapes to…. the pleasure of a hot bath. Indeed, bathing fell out of fashion in Europe sometime after the Roman empire and stayed out of fashion there (and in colonized america) until the mid 19th century. Logistical difficulties, the sinfulness of baths, and beliefs about the unhealthfulness of them kept them out of fashion for some time. Due to the high specific heat capacity of water, (which makes no small contribution to the possibility of life existing at all) the effort that goes into bathing in even mildly warm water without plumbing or electricity is immense, thus everyone but the super-wealthy just didn’t or couldn’t bother. With a few eccentric exceptions, even rich people avoided bathing, as it was considered unhealthful due to the disturbance of natural oils and not unreasonable fear of water-borne illness. Christians considered bathing downright because it was too sensuous. After all, ancient Roman baths were apparently full of the naked, oiled bodies of athletes, to speak nothing of erotic statuary.
Advances in electricity and plumbing allowed bathing to take place in private where sin (ahem, carnal pleasures) could be avoided and folks didn’t have to bathe in the same cold, dirty bathwater everyone else in the large family had just used. These advances gave rise to a new popularity in bathing. Eventually the whole cleanliness is next to godliness thing got applied to the body and smelling like a product became part and parcel of civility. Touching the naked body while immersed in warm water nevertheless remained somewhat suspect. Reflect on cold showers vs. a bathtub-full-of-roses. So, bathing can be sinfully sensuous or purifying, it can be a communal act or a private one, it can be a public menace or a civic duty but this is a health column, so; is it healthy?
The shortest answer: wash below the wrists (your hands) and do it right.
(Weirdly, in our supposedly hygiene obsessed culture, precious few people wash their hands correctly. Doing it right means washing above the wrist, under the nails, and scrubbing for at least a full round of “row row row your boat”. It is informative to watch people in public bathrooms do a quick, bacteriologically ineffective, rinse of the fingertips. Whatever skin is going in the mouth directly or bringing food to the mouth, or touching other mucous membranes, ought to be cleaned quite regularly. Keep in mind washing the hands in clean, plain water with no soap is actually better at removing germs than using something like hand sanitizer.)
The short answer: It depends. Generally speaking, washing your body whether in part or as a whole is a good plan whenever there is stuff on your body that you don’t want there.
The long answer: Wash your hands for sure, and showering isn’t a bad idea either, just use a mild soap. Soot, smog, train grease, germs, dead skin, fungi, and all manner of things settle on the skin throughout the day. City and town life is a sooty business, arguably less so than during the early days of industrialization, when soot was so rampant that it blacked out the skies over london and caused a huge increase in rickets because the sun couldn’t reach children’s skin, the children didn’t make vitamin D, and calcium wasn’t deposited in the bones in sufficient quantity. Country life is dirty business too, animal poop, dust, and dirt are everywhere. Whether in town or country, numerous itch-causing fungi would love to live on your skin, and not washing gives them the green-light. They won’t hurt you per se, but they’ll itch a lot and you can pass them on to others, which is not at all cool. This is where not-showering can harm your health: if you are itchy from a fungus or dead skin buildup, you’ll scratch at your skin, especially in your sleep. The scratching leads to small cuts. Bacteria get in the cuts and you can end up with all manner of stuff, from small pimples to full blown MRSA. So, not showering doesn’t hurt you per se, but it can lead to some pretty gnarly skin infections not-so-indirectly. Also, the skin is always growing, not unlike rat teeth. The skin can use some help shedding itself from time to time, the same way a rat has to chew on stuff or its teeth grow through its chin. Showering does a good job of keeping things balanced for people in this regard. For a happy medium, give yourself a good rub-down without soap in the shower, or in a body of water. This removes most of the dirt and leaves your skin-oils intact, since oil and water don’t mix. For those readers who use shampoo and soap all the time, consider using it only every other shower, to keep from over-drying the skin. Try out some really old-fashioned sensuous, potentially sinful communal bathing! While you’re soaking, consider the historic relevance of the recently popular Moroccan-themed bathroom decor. Whatever you do, cut down on time spent having the runs, colds, the flu, and the like by learning about and practicing proper hand washing!