On not using soap

by haywardhelen

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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.

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