When I travel, I carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer. By travel I mean proper travel, way past the luggage check in counter and passport control at my local international airport. Got to keep those hands microbe free, right? Of course, I do not use hand sanitizer in my day to day life – I use soap and water instead.
Once I had to use rubbing alcohol as an improvised hand sanitizer. I could tell it worked because the skin on my hands felt so cleansed that when I rubbed two fingertips together, I could feel rubber-like friction between individual ridges of the skin forming my fingerprint patterns. Soon, my skin started peeling, as if sunburned. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe using pure alcohol to clean my hands is not a good idea after all. I should try petrol… 🙂 Yes, I have seen this done and considered perfectly normal.
“Where are you going with this, Babiola?” Patience, my reader, I do have a point. You see, no matter what product you use for cleaning your hands or body, it inevitably dries your skin. As we already discussed, the primary role of soaps and detergents is degreasing. Some cleaning products, like antibacterial solutions, will contain chemicals packing a gradient of poisonous viciousness. Considering that clean water alone does a pretty good job of cleaning and lowering bacterial counts on body surfaces, do we even need all these products come in contact with our skin?
Well, to start with, is it true that washing hands with just water makes them cleaner? Sure is. Depending on what studies you look at, washing hands with just water makes them roughly twice as clean. By this I mean that amount of bacteria on a person’s hands will be halved after washing them with just water. That’s pretty good. Considering that many bacteria water does not manage to purge remain stuck to the oils on your hands, it is unlikely that you’ll swallow them by accident.
However, personal hygiene is not just about you; or me for that matter. It is mostly about people around us: our children, our partners, our friends and even strangers we happen to encounter in our day to day habitat. All those bacteria enriched oils on your hands will rub off on door handles, dishes, table tops, mobile phones, remote controls and so on. The next person to touch those things after you will pick them up.
So what about soap? Turns out that using soap when washing hands will, again by a rough estimate, further halve bacterial contamination, meaning that there will be half as many bacteria left on your hands after washing them with soap as if you had used only water. Yes, it is a good habit to wash hands with soap. “Yeah, but what about the rest of the bacteria that’s left?” Good point. To achieve almost complete annihilation of microbial presence one must use alcohol. Your hands will be almost sterile. However, do refer to my experience with using this technique described above.
Ok, we got hands covered. What about the rest of the body? This depends on your personal preferences and goals. I remember spending summers at the seaside without access to fresh water showers. It was no biggie – I’d just towel off after swimming, change my clothes before going to bed and that was it. I slept like a tadpole (to be fair, I was not much older than one) and my skin looked magnificent. Notice that I did swim every day, in effect taking salt water baths; and all that salt probably worked as a pretty effective exfoliant. Yet, no soap, no shampoo, feeling fine.
For adults, it is a different story. Body odor causing bacteria love hair. The hairier you are, the more you need to shower. Preferably with soap, since we just saw that soap helps with bacteria elimination. Must you use soap (or any other detergent)? No. Will you have to take more frequent showers? Probably – especially if you are an active person. Experiment and see what works for you.
Before I let you go, my reader, please note that in this article I mostly talked about soap. Shampoos, body washes, hand washes, shower gels – all these products perform a function essentially identical to soap. However, in a different post I will address some issues with these soap alternatives that you may find important… Until then, wash your hands well and preferably with soap. 🙂