helen hayward

life writing

Month: August, 2013

On not using soap


Once a month, throughout my childhood, my mother disappeared for an hour or two for a facial. Just as I now disappear from my kids for a yoga class, she would go off for her facial. By the side of her bed sat a tube of hand cream and a tub of face cream. Every night she applied both of these religiously. She had good skin and she looked after it.

At school we had all sorts of extra-curricular education – sex education, religious education, careers advice. And yet none of it addressed how to look after the skin I was in. When, around the age of fifteen, I developed acne, my mother sent me to a dermatologist. The skin doctor, as I called him, gave me an acid skin peel, to irritate the top layer into shedding itself, and a course of antibiotics. He never mentioned soap or diet. Instead he showed me a line drawing of a sebaceous gland with an overproduction of sebum. And that was that.

For ten years I struggled with my skin problem, hugging it to myself and taking it very personally. What in years to come I would come to understand as my inner world, shamed me in adolescence by manifesting itself in my skin – on my skin. If large pimples appeared before a big social event, it was touch and go whether I’d feel confident enough to attend.

Twenty years later I was in the local library, flanked by my two children. They lost themselves in the transport section, while I wandered into a neighbouring aisle. Your Skin, written by two Sydney dermatologists, caught my eye. I read the introduction standing up in the aisle, felt curious enough to borrow the book – and fell back into my day as a Mummy. A couple of evenings later I read Your Skin straight through.


‘Your skin doesn’t need soap’, was the book’s opening line. Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps you gave up using soap years ago. But for me it was news. I knew about sodium laurel sulphate – the industrial detergent that cosmetic companies use to make their products pleasingly sudsy. But I hadn’t realised that all soaps irritate sensitive skins – that they stripped away the layer of oil my skin was most in need of.

‘Use nothing more than conditioner and a flannel in the shower – only use soap for your hands – and your skin will thank you.’ All those years of using cleanser, toner and moisturiser on my skin had been, not just a waste of time, but an added stress on it.

A couple of months later I caught an interview on my car radio, featuring a book on the history of cleanliness. The author, a historian, was clearly spoken and light-hearted. ‘We really don’t need to wash every day’, she was saying, as I rushed to pick up my children from the school gates. ‘In earlier centuries a bath was a weekly ritual, not a daily necessity’.  Of course they still washed, she said, but they only washed the important bits, standing up at the bathroom basin. And in general, she ended, the condition of their skin was better than ours, and they suffered fewer skin problems.

You may be thinking this is all a bit ho-hum. What’s the big deal about skipping soap and a daily shower? However you may not realise how big a part my daily shower had been to my sense of self. I wasn’t compulsive about it, but I did feel that it was my natural right. It was an essential part of my awakening to each day. All those years – 19 in all – that I was an Australian girl in London, my daily shower was integral to who I felt I was.

Ever the experimenter, I decided to skip my daily shower for a week or two. And to leave the soap in the dish. You know what? Nothing happened. From one day to the next, my daily shower became a thing of the past. I still washed the important bits at the basin. And I still used soap on my hands. But I threw out the shampoo and used conditioner on my hair and skin when I showered. And still nothing happened. A few rashes that I’d never been able to interest my GP in disappeared, but that was it.

There was one last thing. Vanity. There was, I soon realised, no amazing product that can reverse the loss of collagen that accompanies the ageing process. Certainly not one that I could afford anyway. Day by day, as I grow older, my skin gets drier and wrinkles more easily (my teenagers are on this earth to point out this truth). And yet, even in middle age, my skin seems to benefit from my neglect of it – from all the things that I don’t put on it or do to it. All those years of fussing over my skin – of mistaking my skin for something essential about me. When really, if I’d  just left it alone, it might have thanked me for it.

Inside the box


‘They don’t work, you know’. So says my son, sounding older than his sixteen years. He struggles to find three hundred words to fill an A4 page, and is adamant that his opinion on the origins of World War One isn’t worth expressing. And yet he cuts down to size my vegetable box scheme do-gooding in five whittling words.

‘But you know they don’t work’, he says, pushing his index finger on the computer button as the screen flickers awake in the corner of our kitchen, and then heads to the fridge for the first of many apples for the evening. ‘They’re always full of vegetables you don’t want’, he adds, rubbing it in.

‘Did you get any kale?’ he asks, a few minutes later, munching through his apple with practiced swipes.’ ‘Actually, no. But I got a lot of bok choy and spinach’. ‘You see’, he says, typing in his password and placing his apple stalk – his stomach must be an orchard by now – almost daintily down on the table.

A few weeks ago I signed up for four $55 boxes of vegetables as a trial. I’d received similar boxes in the past – once for three years and more recently for a few months. The a la carte boxes were wonderful, especially as I could pay over the phone. But the surprise cash only boxes were weirdly complicated – arranging a time for delivery when I was home, returning boxes and paying with real money. I struggled to have cash to hand for a surprise box of vegetables at 5pm every Wednesday afternoon.

But now, I tell myself, things are different. My children are through the food fussy years. Even my husband quite likes salad, if I dress it well. Besides buying direct from the grower appeals to me at various levels. Perhaps, I tell myself, I’ll enjoy the surprise element this time round.

‘What’s this?’ I ask my daughter later the same day, in a bad Jamie Oliver impersonation. ‘A white carrot’, offers my husband, passing hopefully through the kitchen, hoping some food might be on offer. ‘A turnip’, suggests my son, his back to us and his face to the screen. ‘No idea’, pipes up my daughter, unamused. ‘Wrong’, I reply, ‘it’s a swede’. ‘And what are you going to cook with that?’ asks my daughter, suspicious. ‘Oh, nothing much’, I say airily, thumbing through Stephanie Alexander for ideas.

There is a certain moment – or is it a fine line – after which teenagers grow so big that they take up the same mental and physical space as an adult. Two children who it seems only yesterday complied and mostly agreed with me, today behave more like flat-mates than children. They still make demands and act dependently – just not all of the time. On the other hand their bullshit detectors are incredibly finely tuned. Nothing gets past them – carbon trading schemes, teachers’ attempts to dress coolly, benign questions about their school day, vegetable box schemes.

The critical voice in my head that I spend so much of my day outfoxing, or just ignoring, is turned up high the minute my kids get home from school. Dumping their bags in the hall, filtering into the kitchen in search of a snack, moaning about homework and dropping unwelcome mail on the kitchen table – within minutes they are on my case.

Years ago, when my kids were in primary school, I joined the school’s Sustainability Committee. Of the five other members, three were convinced that the key to cleaning up the planet lies in the next generation. I disagreed. Why would our children be motivated to clean up the mess of generations before them? Won’t they have enough challenges of their own without inheriting a To Do list from us?

The headmistress of the school chaired this particular committee. One morning she took me aside after our monthly meeting – held in an old unheated wooden shed. ‘You know, Helen, you won’t get anywhere if you continue to push your trolley’. I got what she was getting at. If you want things to change, she was saying, you have to be clever about it. You can’t go round browbeating people into removing junk food from the tuckshop and turning down thermostats in classrooms. That’s just not how change works, she was saying. She was right, of course. (But then again, when her contract came to an end she left the school and, within months, suffered a major stroke.)

But none of this helps me decide how to cook the produce from my fortnightly box of vegetables. Pak choy, well that’s easy. Lunch for me. Leeks, again easy – I cook them all the time. Ditto carrots. Cabbage, perhaps, if cooked slowly with butter and oil until it’s translucent and loses all bitterness. Parsnips, hmm. I know – roasted or grated and hidden in Bolognese sauce . Two large swathes of silverbeet. More lunch for me and, if chopped finely into risotto, a small amount for my family. Lemongrass – absolutely no idea. Pass. Russet Burbank potatoes, again easy. And twelve feijoia? The feijoia defeat me, sitting on a plate for days until brown spots appear to flag my neglect of them.

The following day I visit the supermarket to buy sardines for our dog, cleaning supplies – and, yes, a few of the vegetables that my virtuous box scheme has overlooked. Brushing through the turnstile with my plastic basket, I walk past island after island of fruit and vegetables stacked high with out-of-season fruit and vegetables. A woman around my age is piling her trolley with fruit and vegetables, clearly in a rush. For a moment I envy her. She doesn’t care about the origins of her food, or how much various farmers in the area have been paid. Or perhaps she does, but has discounted this in the name of convenience, common sense and budget.

‘Be the change you want to see’, says Michael Pollan, Peter Singer, George Monbiot and a whole environmental movement after them. ‘Change starts small’, writes Michael Pollan in Cook. ‘It starts in the kitchen, and in the choices we make about the food we buy.’ I find this idea persuasive, seductive even. But then again I’m middle-class, educated and can afford to make clear choices. I like to feel that my efforts in the kitchen – and forages for food – are worthwhile. And this is the fantasy that my son’s casual comment punctures so entirely.

vela story


Vela mag asked me to expand a blog post to shed light on modern marriage. Not sure how modern my marriage is – the only one I know – but here is the result.