This week we’re learning how to take better care of our skin with help from physician and Atlantic staff writer James Hamblin. Tune in to hear James explain to Alice and Jordan why washing less might actually be better for your skin, how skincare brands are deceiving us, and the emerging science around the skin microbiome.
James is the author of If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body and his latest book is Clean: The New Science of Skin.
Highlights from this week’s episode
From the James Hamblin interview:
On the skin microbiome:
[W]e have trillions of microbes living all over us. Similar to how we have them in our guts and they’re not causing problems there. You know, if the coronavirus is among them, yes, it’s definitely causing problems and you want to get it off. But most of them are their normal. It is an ecosystem that is essentially part of who we are. And so the best you can do is hope to optimise it so that it’s working in your favour…what we do know is that it’s not the correct approach to just try to kill them all the time….we did not evolve to become like repulsive to other human beings if we didn’t every 24 hours go through some elaborate cleaning ritual. Right. So it seems like what we’re doing is a bunch of real short term fixes instead of thinking about how do you in the longer term, create a healthier biome that is working for you.
On the difference (or lack thereof) between skincare products:
Soap is fundamentally a very similar compound. We can tweak these products by adding certain fragrances and colours and different concentrations, so you might have a slight preference here. But the idea that you need a different product for all these things and actually that everyone in your family needs a different product and then you need many different soaps and detergents for different parts of your body I think that’s the fundamental idea. And, you know, if you have a preference, great…But I think a lot of people think like the idea of using shampoo to clean your clothes or something is just mind blowing when in fact, they’re almost identical products.
On the hygiene hypothesis and the confusion between “cleanliness” and health:
When you talk about washing, you know, washing your arms, about applying deodorant, about whitening your teeth, like you were really talking about signifiers of social status, class and personal preference, and they’re not tied to health. There is something I get into more in the book…is the hygiene hypothesis, that because we think it is necessary to say wash your hair. If you get the oils off your hair, that you might somehow be a healthier person. That’s this really interesting idea that’s very tied up in complex, problematic lessons from history and marketing. But that when we think just doing more is better, we have in some cases overdone it and let ourselves become isolated in our immune systems to become hyper-reactive. And, you know, our lifestyles have played a part in the overwhelming rates of allergies and autoimmune conditions that we’re seeing now because we are living mostly indoors, removed from biodiversity.
To hear more about the new science of skin health, we recommend listening to the full episode!