From soap to detergent, what’s the most sustainable, nontoxic way to stay clean?
Maybe we’re actually meant to be dirty hippies after all. According to one doctor, we’re overdoing the soap big time, even in post-pandemic times.
Are We Using Too Much Soap?
According to James Hamblin, Yale School of Public Health lecturer and podcast host for The Atlantic, soap destroys our skin’s microbiome. Hamblin is the author of the 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less.
And while handwashing is critical for preventing the spread of disease, it’s not necessarily the best approach for the rest of your body, says Hamblin.
As Hamblin learned about the body’s external microbiome, he decided to forego the soap for a bit. He never went back. That was six years ago.
Hamblin queried our modern understanding and expectations around cleanliness. After all, humans survived millennia without Axe body wash. But by the 1920s, body odor was stigmatized. Advertising for soap further divorced us from our animal nature: you smell and you need to do something about it. This same approach led to the shampoo industry and our habitual overwashing of hair.
Just how clean do we really need to be?
What Is Clean, Anyway?
“We know from historical writings that certainly people smelled bad. We didn’t just accept all smells,” Hamblin told the Guardian. “Now, if someone smells sweaty or of anything less than soap, perfume or cologne, we think of that as being unclean.”
And that aversion has led to a rise in harmful chemical fragrances that permeate every aspect of our lives. From body care to laundry detergent to candles and air fresheners, we’re bombarding our lives with toxic chemical fragrances.
Are Fragrances Dangerous?
Synthetic fragrances often contain chemicals called phthalates that extend the life of a scent. It’s why you can smell laundry detergent on clothes days, and even weeks, after they came out of the dryer. Phthalates have been linked to numerous health issues including reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, birth defects, respiratory problems, and some forms of cancer.
These fragrances can also exacerbate skin issues. And Hamblin suggests the rise in chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne may also be the result of the constant attempts at prevention and removal of the skin’s microbiome. Scrubbing away the bacteria designed to protect the body and neutralize odors makes it come back stronger and more imbalanced, creating a cycle of skin issues and odors.
“As I gradually used less and less [soap], I started to need less and less,” Hamblin writes. “My skin slowly became less oily, and I got fewer patches of eczema. I didn’t smell like pine trees or lavender, but I also didn’t smell like the oniony body odour that I used to get when my armpits, used to being plastered with deodorant, suddenly went a day without it.” He smelled “like a person,” his girlfriend explained.
Should You Stop Using Soap?
There’s no question that handwashing is needed for preventing the spread of infectious diseases. It’s also necessary after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food.
But as for the rest of it? That may be optional. But to be clear, foregoing soap doesn’t mean foregoing washing — water and elbow grease are important to do regularly. But just like our scalp benefits with days (even weeks) without hair washing, skin quality may improve by reducing the use of soap, especially the chemical-laden mainstream products. At the very least, use a natural soap. But if you skip it, don’t worry. No one on your Zoom call will ever know.
Sustainable, Nontoxic Soaps
Can’t go entirely soap-free just yet? Give these nontoxic, environmentally friendly soaps a lather.
1. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap
The OG organic, natural, and sustainable soap brand is also keen on supporting Fair Trade across its supply chain. It works with producers and growers committed to ethical practices, such as protecting the rainforests from deforestation. The brand is also an advocate for psychedelic medicine and is a vocal proponent of animal rights. You can get clean with organic oil soaps from hemp seeds, olives, and coconuts. And a little bit of magic, of course.
Ethique is actively anti-plastic with bar soaps, shampoos, and conditioners that really work without all the plastic. But the brand isn’t just sustainably-minded—it’s also committed to clean, quality plant-based ingredients that are effective, safe, and always cruelty-free.
3. Alaffia Good Soap
Next time you’re at Whole Foods, pick the longest checkout line. Why? Because it’s where the store often merchandises the Good Soap collection made by Alaffia. This body care brand focuses on African ingredients, including a range of triple-milled soaps sold exclusively at Whole Foods Markets. Ten percent of proceeds go to support the Whole Planet Foundation, which provides microfinancing around the world. The soaps are packaging free and for the most sustainable option, be sure to grab the vegan scents like Cedarwood, Coastal Breeze, or Vanilla Haze.