11 August 2019

What Does "Clean" Mean?



Holistic and intentional living asks us to constantly simplify - free ourselves from the things we don't need. For me, rethinking my hygiene routine was a logical step on this journey. I looked around the bathroom, suddenly aware of the clutter of accumulated bottles and tubes. Why, I thought, do us humans need all these complicated products to keep ourselves clean and healthy? Time to go back to basics.

The dictionary definition of hygiene is a practice that maintains health. Modern life has expanded this humble objective to extreme proportions. We're obsessed with cleaning ourselves (and our homes), prepared to employ all kinds of toxic chemicals to meet our standards. The idea that we can do without 99% of the hygiene products sold to us is both true, and totally liberating.

THE CHEMICAL PROBLEM

Take a peek at the back of any commercial hygiene product - be it a shower gel, shampoo or moisturiser - and you'll see a long list of chemical ingredients. Most people accept these extensive lists, knowing the product fulfils their requirements of super soft, perfumed skin and hair. Antiperspirant deodorant, which disrupts the natural and necessary process of sweating, is absolutely the norm. But the health implications of these chemicals - both personal and environmental - are considerable, especially with continual, life-long use.

I encounter people who are very conscious of the things they eat - knowing that what goes into their gut impacts their health - yet are quite happy to smear chemical-filled body butters all over their skin without question. The skin is a super permeable membrane - everything we put on goes in, arguably having as significant an effect as what we eat. It seems we should be giving this reality much more consideration as we go about our daily hygiene rituals.

When left alone, our skin maintains itself and, through the interplay of thousands of micro-organisms, builds resiliency against disease. Harsh soaps and chemicals disrupt this natural balance, so too disrupting our immune functions. It's no wonder, really, so many people suffer from skin conditions. Moreover, there are numerous known and lesser-known toxicity issues to consider when it comes to chemical-filled products.

HYGIENE vs STERILISATION

Today, in both personal and medical contexts, it's assumed that optimum hygiene (i.e avoidance of disease) is achieved through sterilisation - wiping out as much bacteria as possible. There is a growing body of evidence that mass overall reduction of bacteria is not conducive to better health. The skin is a complex ecosystem, home to all kinds of bacteria and other microscopic organisms which are constantly interacting with each other and actually working to protect us against disease. This article argues that a more robust definition of hygiene must take into account the complexity of life on the skin:

The concept of hygiene is rooted in the relationship between cleanliness and the maintenance of good health. Since the widespread acceptance of the germ theory of disease, hygiene has become increasingly conflated with sterilization. [...] This treatment of hygiene may be insufficient in light of recent microbial ecology research, which has demonstrated that humans have intimate and evolutionarily significant relationships with a diverse assemblage of microorganisms (our microbiota). [...] This complex ecological context suggests that the conception of hygiene as a unilateral reduction or removal of microbes has outlived its usefulness.

In other words, killing all the bacteria - the statement proudly plastered on the front of your hand wash - is not the best approach for health in the longterm. It does reduce the amount of overall bacteria, but along with the bad guys, a lot of the good guys get destroyed too. Just like antibiotics disrupt the balance of our digestive system and natural defences against disease, hygiene products do similar things to our skin: they strip its resiliency, making us vulnerable to all kinds of skin issues as well as (research is showing) a compromised immune system.

The evidence that microbes are essential for maintaining health supports the idea that hygienic practices aimed at the simple removal of microbes may not be the best approach.

Another thing worth mentioning here is the hygiene hypothesis: that childhood exposure to a mixture of microbial matter (what we might consider 'dirt') boosts the immune system, particularly against allergies and related conditions. Following on this, "excessive hygiene [...] leads to an abrupt and sharp decline in natural exposure to all sorts of microbes [which] in turn fundamentally alters how the immune system gets 'trained' during formative years".

Our obsession with chemically sterilising ourselves and everything around us is actually hurting us. Time to find a smarter and simpler hygiene practice - saving time, money and energy in the process.

FINDING BALANCE

Following the above points, do we need soap at all?

From a health perspective, no. Our skin can take care of itself, undisturbed by invasive substances and left to flourish. Many people are washing without soap and finding water alone does a great job.

This might be a bit too far a jump for most people - which is understandable - but there's definitely a half way point with the help of some brilliant natural products. Once I made this transition, I actually found it quite difficult to tolerate the very obvious and overbearing scents of mainstream products. Here are the products I'm currently using:

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