Showering, for most of us, is just another part of the daily routine that we can do almost mindlessly. However, according to one medical expert called James Hamblin, it’s a task that we should be paying more attention to. He claims, you see, that we’ve all been cleaning ourselves in the completely wrong way – and that it may be having a real impact on our health.
So, just who is this James Hamblin? And who is he to tell us we’ve not been showering the right way? Well, as he’s a preventative medicine physician, he has plenty of experience when it comes to health and the human body. After studying medicine at Indiana University, Hamblin completed a three-year residency and was tasked with creating a health section for The Atlantic. He’s also since penned several books, including 2016’s If Our Bodies Could Talk and 2020’s Clean.
But that’s not all. Hamblin has been published in the likes of The Washington Post, The Guardian and The New York Times. He’s also shared his expertise at Wharton Business School, Harvard Medical School and Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. And he’s been lecturing students at the Yale School of Public Health for several years, too.
Naturally, Hamblin’s efforts have meant that he has become something of a media darling. For instance, in 2014 he was named as one of 140 must-follow Twitter users by Time magazine. The physician has also been called “the most delightful MD ever” by BuzzFeed, and he has picked up a Best Web Personality nomination at the Webby Awards for his popular online series If Our Bodies Could Talk.
But Hamblin’s interest in showering began when he moved from California to a Brooklyn studio apartment to further his writing ambitions. Then, after shifting his focus onto studying microbiome science, he started to switch up his shower habits. And it wasn’t long before the medical professional decided to spread the word about his findings.
Of course, Hamblin is far from the first medical expert to advise us on how we clean ourselves. In a piece for NBC News, for example, several board-certified dermatologists offered their words of wisdom on the daily ritual that most of us don’t think twice about. And some of their tips may have come as quite a surprise.
Firstly, you shouldn’t spend too long scrubbing yourself, says Dr. Jessica Krant from the American Academy of Dermatology. She also advised that unless you have a particularly active lifestyle, you don’t need to hop in the shower on a daily basis. In 2017 the doctor told NBC News, “On occasion, there may be a reason to shower twice a day. But those should be extremely short showers.”
So, what exactly are the pitfalls of spending too long in the shower? Well, contrary to what you may think, increased exposure to water can in fact dry both the hair and the skin. Krant also argued that a lengthier shower routine “gives the water a chance to allow any cleansers to be more damaging.”
Elsewhere, Dr. Lauren Ploch told NBC News that there’s a certain group of people who should be particularly keen to get in and out of the shower as fast as possible. She said, “For patients with atopic dermatitis and/or very dry skin, I recommend keeping showers to five minutes or less. Keep showers active. Don’t stand under [the] water for minutes at a time.”
And Krant has also touched on just how warm or cool our daily showers should be. The doctor said, “Some people advocate extremely cold water for invigorating the circulation. Other than avoiding extremely hot temperatures, I say use whatever temperature feels best.”
When it comes to washing your hair, however, it seems that it can be difficult to get the balance right. This is because hair follicles consist of dead skin cells and don’t require as much cleaning as the rest of our bodies. In fact, overwashing the hair – particularly if it’s colored or gray – can result in it drying out.
On the flip side, we apparently shouldn’t get too lax about using shampoo and conditioner, either. Ploch told NBC News, “People often neglect scalp washing so that they don’t dry out the hair. This can lead to a buildup of scalp oils that [can cause] flaking and redness.” For reference, the NBC News feature recommends that people should wash their scalp at least once every seven days.
But what about the rest of the body? Well, there are certain areas – such as the legs and arms – that don’t need as much attention as others. Instead, the focus should be on cleaning the feet, groin and underarms. And it appears that traditional soap isn’t always the way to go, either.
Moisturizing body washes are far more effective and less damaging, according to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Doris Day. She said, “Cleansers can add the moisture back into your skin.” Once again, though, Krant has recommended that people get the product that works best for them.
The experts even claim that there’s a step-by-step method of showering – particularly if you’re prone to acne. Ploch suggested conditioning the hair first before cleaning your face, back and then chest. This top-to-bottom approach is apparently far more effective in covering the entire body. And, of course, there’s also a rule when it comes to shaving.
Krant advised that shaving should begin toward the end of a brief shower. She said, “The hairs are damp but not too swollen from too much heat and steam, which causes hair swelling that later leads to ingrowns when the shaved hairs dry and shrink below the skin surface.” Then, once you’ve showered and shaved correctly, it’s also important to dry yourself down in the right manner.
Yes, while the temptation to rub yourself vigorously with a towel after a shower may be overwhelming, experts believe that patting your skin is a much less damaging way of getting dry. Irritation and itchiness are just two of the possible side effects of rubbing, you see. Just ensure that you don’t ignore skin folds – such as in between the toes and under the arms.
Day recommended applying moisturizer immediately after you’ve fully dried yourself, too. This apparently helps to both retain the skin’s plumpness and avoid transepidermal water loss. What’s more, each of the three experts who talked to NBC News advised moisturizing two times every day even if you don’t take a shower – particularly during the winter months.
However, if you take a look at James Hamblin’s advice on showering, you’ll note that it’s rather different from what the other experts had to say. And it’s arguably much more radical. Simply put, the doctor, lecturer and writer argues that you should avoid any kind of soap at all when under the nozzle. In fact, he has no qualms in telling the world that he hasn’t used such a product since 2015.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the general public’s response to the revelation that Hamblin doesn’t use soap is not always positive. But he believes that the science backs him up, telling The Guardian, “It’s one of the few remaining things for which we feel fine telling someone that they’re gross. It’s amazing to me, honestly.”
Hamblin originally became inspired to ditch the soap after doing his research on microbiomes. This is the name given to the huge number of microbes that play a highly important role in the functioning of the human body. They’re particularly vital to the development of the immune system and in warding off eczema and other autoimmune conditions.
And as microbiologists explore the complicated relationship between humans and microbiomes, it seems that the negative effects of antibacterial products are becoming more apparent. Indeed, considering the beneficial role that these microorganisms play within the body, the process of washing them away does arguably seem a little unwise. Removing microbiomes could even be contributing to the rise in conditions such as acne and psoriasis.
But you’re not alone if you think that giving up soap may result in another major problem: body odor. The Guardian reports, however, that the stigma surrounding this issue began solely as an advertising ploy for a soap brand way back in the 1920s. And Hamblin has argued that since then, such marketing tactics have skewed society’s idea of what it is to be clean.
Hamblin told the British newspaper, “We know from historical writings that certainly people smelled bad. We didn’t just accept all smells. Now, if someone smells sweaty or of anything less than soap, perfume or cologne, we think of that as being unclean.”
As well as ditching soap, Hamblin also has gradually phased out using deodorant – and he soon noticed some positive results. The doctor wrote in his book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less, “As I gradually used less and less [deodorant], I started to need less and less. My skin slowly became less oily, and I got fewer patches of eczema.”
Contrary to what you might think, people didn’t need to keep their distance from Hamblin whenever they came within a few feet. He added, “I didn’t smell like pine trees or lavender. But I also didn’t smell like the oniony body odor that I used to get when my armpits – used to being plastered with deodorant – suddenly went a day without it.”
Hamblin’s future wife also didn’t have a problem with his aversion to toiletries – remarking instead that he smelled “like a person.” And after the lecturer spoke to various couples about the issue of body odor, he discovered that a person’s natural smell was largely deemed to be attractive. He wrote, “The hundreds of subtle volatile chemical signals we emit may play roles in communicating with other people – and other species – in ways we’re just beginning to understand.”
According to Hamblin, then, the skincare industry is to blame for our obsession with staying clean at any cost. He also calls out the hypocrisy of launching a never-ending range of products to rectify problems that businesses allegedly created. The physician notes that many of these are now deemed to be so natural that they are “as close as possible to nothing at all.”
Interestingly, it’s this “nothing at all” approach that helped another soap-avoiding writer to combat her long-running battle with acne. Maya Dusenberry had tried every product under the sun to help with her skin condition, including antibiotics, various lotions and the contraceptive pill. Yet these only ever added to her problems – and even resulted in hair loss and rheumatoid arthritis.
It was only when Dusenbery stopped using any kind of topical or oral products that she noticed any positive effect. The journalist apparently now uses nothing more than water and a cloth made out of microfibers on her face. And even more encouragingly, her arthritis has gone into remission.
Hamblin believes, then, that overusing the kind of antibiotics Dusenbery was prescribed poses an even bigger danger to microbiomes than poor hygiene. And the skincare industry appears to be waking up to this problem, too. In fact, several companies are reportedly now in the process of developing products that actually help microbiomes to thrive rather than getting rid of them.
The Guardian reports that even giant corporations such as L’Oreal could soon be making products tailor-made to an individual’s microbiomes. But Hamblin still remains slightly skeptical about the positive effects of such manipulation. He wrote, “Maybe there are some things we can do, but… it keeps coming back to this holistic sense of ‘everything matters.’”
And according to microbiologists, there are more natural ways to improve the skin microbe rate. For example, the Amish community, farmworkers and other individuals who spend a lot of time in the outdoors are reported to boast a far more diverse range of microbiomes than city dwellers. The U.K. newspaper claims that these people are also far less likely to contract an autoimmune condition or experience any of its side effects.
Those who live in suburban areas are therefore advised to become far more at one with nature if they wish to boost the number of microbes on their skin. In fact, microbiologists have found that getting dirty is, ironically, conducive to staying clean. Urbanites should apparently also do their best to enjoy as much close contact with animals and other people as possible.
When all’s said and done, though, there’s one area of the body that deters most people from embracing a water-only lifestyle: the anus. Yet Hamblin claims in his book that your butt can still stay supremely clean without the aid of soap products – even when there’s an unwanted build-up of residue. He told The Guardian, “Dry toilet paper kind of creates that problem.”
Hamblin continued, “If you were gardening and had mud all over your hands, would you just use a dry paper towel? No, you’d at least get them wet and scrub them together. When people use bidets, they have less of an issue with that, or when people use disposable towelette things.”
Of course, towelettes aren’t exactly cheap to buy or particularly friendly to the environment. Hamblin concedes, therefore, that “wetting toilet paper is fine.” And if you’re still worried about the paper simply dissolving into mush when it’s been dampened, the expert insists that it won’t “unless you’re trying to drown it.”
During a 2020 interview on the U.K. daytime TV show This Morning , however, Hamblin conceded that he isn’t trying to encourage the public to bypass showers altogether. When questioned about his post-exercise routine, the doctor replied, “If I need to look presentable in a short time, I would hop in the shower and rinse with water. You can do that quickly and easily. I’m not saying everyone should stop.”
Nonetheless, Hamblin still believes that showering every day isn’t always necessary. He went on, “Everyone has gone a few days without showering. Usually, it’s because we’re sick or traveling in extreme circumstances. We certainly feel gross and oily and smelly. But when you gradually ease off of things, maybe move to every other day or every three days.”
So, it seems that patience is key when it comes to adapting to the practice of fewer showers and, at some point, zero soap. Hamblin advised viewers of the hit British TV show, “Gradually ease off of the products. You start to get used to it. It’s a slow process.”
Sometimes, all it takes is an expert to tell us that we’ve been doing something wrong our entire lives. Take cooking pasta, for example, which arguably isn’t as easy as taking a shower. But according to TV chef Alton Brown, there’s still a much better method of preparing the food than you realize. And most of us just aren’t aware of this rather unusual but successful technique.
Even the most culinarily challenged among us could probably cook up a batch of pasta. Most recipes advise simply dropping the staple into boiling water and waiting until it goes suitably soft. But while this may seem like the preferred method, according to TV foodie Alton Brown it’s all wrong. As a result, he’s put forward a controversial cooking technique which, he claims, makes the perfect pasta. And it may just change the way that you prepare the food forever.
But who is Brown? And why does he have the authority to tell us where we’ve been going wrong when it comes to cooking pasta? Well, it’s probably fair to say that Brown knows a thing or two about food. In fact, he’s been on top of the culinary game for over 20 years, first coming to the public’s attention in 1999 with the launch of his show Good Eats. That program was picked up by the Food Network, and it featured Brown taking a more scientific approach to cooking as well as investigating food history and techniques.
Prior to launching Good Eats, however, Brown was a relative newcomer to professional cooking. In fact, he’d previously studied film at the University of Georgia and had embarked on a career as a cinematographer, working on music videos. One of his best-known credits from this time was the video to R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “The One I Love.”
But Brown’s life changed course in the late 1990s when he became frustrated with the quality of American cooking shows. Explaining his problem with the series of the time, Brown later told the digital publication Bitter Southerner, “I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, ‘God, these are boring.’”
Continuing his critique, Brown said, “I’m not really learning anything. I got a recipe, okay, but I don’t know anything. I didn’t even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows.” So, Brown seemingly endeavored to do better.
Clearly, Brown felt that he could greatly improve the format of cooking shows. So after trying to come up with one of his own, the foodie eventually landed on an idea that he described as equal parts “Julia Child/Mr. Wizard [and] Monty Python.” And the future TV personality later explained how these three seemingly very different references had come together in his head.
Brown told Bitter Southerner, “If I could come up with a show to combine those three things… not only the practical knowledge that Julia Child was so good at handing over, but she was also great at making you feel you could do it… Mr. Wizard, [from] the old science show, to explain how everything works and why it works. And then Monty Python because it’s freaking funny.”
Summing up his vision, Brown added, “I wanted to make a show that was funny and visually engaging. It’s got enough science to teach people what’s really going on and give them recipes. That was the mission. Then I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.” In 1997, then, he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute.
Then, after Brown’s show Good Eats was picked up by the Food Network, it was nominated in 2000 for the James Beard Foundation’s Best TV Food Journalism Award. And in 2006 the series won a prestigious Peabody Award, which celebrates enlightening, powerful and invigorating stories that are told in the media.
Now, each episode of Good Eats followed a certain theme. The central motif was often a particular cooking technique, such as smoking, or an ingredient, like potatoes. The subject matter of the show was sometimes more general, however – looking at Thanksgiving from a culinary angle, for example.
Yet while each installment of Good Eats had its own distinct focus, a recurring theme throughout the series was the science behind food and cooking. Brown was also often critical of single-purpose kitchen gadgets such as margarita machines and garlic presses, calling them “unitaskers.” As a result, then, he often showed his audience how such utensils could be used for multiple purposes.
Good Eats would run for 14 seasons before airing its final episode in February 2012. By then, it had become the Food Network’s third longest-running series. The only shows that had been airing for a greater amount of time on the channel were Barefoot Contessa and 30 Minute Meals.
Alongside starring on Good Eats, Brown served as the commentator on Iron Chef America: Battle of the Masters from 2004. Over the years, he has also continued to appear on the show’s various spin-offs. And Brown has even fronted Feasting on Asphalt – a mini-series that ran from 2006 to 2007 and explored the history of food on the move.
Brown’s TV stints don’t end there, though, as a year after Good Eats aired its final episode, the screen chef started hosting Cutthroat Kitchen. The cooking competition encourages participants to sabotage the culinary efforts of other competitors in order to boost their own chances of winning. And, astonishingly, the show ran for 15 seasons, coming to an end in 2017.
Aside from his TV endeavors, Brown has also embarked on a series of live shows. That’s right: Alton Brown Live: The Edible Inevitable Tour kicked off in 2013 and ran until 2015. These performances featured a mix of chat, live music, stand-up comedy and food preparation. In his later Eat Your Science tour, however, Brown returned to his passion for combining scientific research with his passion for food.
With a string of television shows and books under his belt, then, it’s fair to say that Brown was a big star and a well-respected figure in the food world in 2015. But that’s not to say that some of his cooking techniques couldn’t raise an eyebrow or two. And some were particularly shocked when he took on everyone’s favorite store cupboard staple: pasta.
Pasta, you see, is a great go-to for cooks of all skill levels. It is traditionally made using durum wheat flour, which is combined with eggs or water to create a dough. This mixture can then be molded into all manner of shapes that are boiled in water. And the staple carb comes in two different varieties: fresh – which is usually cooked more or less straight after it’s been created – and dried, which can be stored and prepared for eating at a later time.
For most people, pasta is also synonymous with Italy. And it seems that the Italians are rather proud of their country’s tradition with the food, with some even claiming that it has formed part of their Mediterranean diet since before the Roman era. Historians beg to differ, however, suggesting that the nation’s love of pasta was instead born in the Middle Ages.
And from the 13th century, pasta – and its various incarnations – were increasingly referenced in sources from the time. But back in the Middle Ages, the dish was different from what we know today. Recipes often included a mix of spicy, savory and sweet flavors, and fresh pasta was typically cooked for longer, making it softer than modern-day tastes tend to dictate.
Yet while pasta was considered the food of the rich in Renaissance Italy, by the late 17th century the dish was a staple for the common man – in Naples at least. In comparison to other foods, pasta was cheap; it was also a good alternative to meat on days when religious practices banned the eating of animals.
Soon, pasta had become the food of choice among Naples’ beggars, who were otherwise known as “lazzaroni.” According to a National Geographic article from 2016, a traveler at the time observed, “When a lazzarone has gotten four or five coins together to eat some macaroni that day, he ceases to care about tomorrow and stops working.” As we mentioned previously, though, the love for the food wasn’t restricted to the lower classes.
In fact, King Ferdinand IV of Naples was said to have a ravenous appetite for pasta. And National Geographic claims that the aristocrat “picked [the shapes] up with his fingers, twisting and pulling them, and voraciously stuffed them in his mouth, spurning the use of a knife, fork or spoon.”
Then, in the following centuries, pasta dishes came to resemble those we know today, with sweet flavors dropped in place of savory ingredients such as vegetables. Interestingly, Italians resisted tomatoes for a long time, believing they were too exotic. But they had seemingly come around to the fruit by 1844 – when tomatoes were paired with pasta for what appears to be the first time.
Today, pasta with tomato sauce remains a classic combination that many of us will be familiar with. It’s also one of the variations of the dish that Italian immigrants brought to the United States following the waves of immigration between 1870 and 1920. But, in fact, pasta didn’t really take off in America until after the Second World War.
Yes, following the end of the conflict, American soldiers returned home from Europe with a real appetite for Italian food. So, to meet this new demand, many Italian-Americans opened up restaurants and delis selling traditional fare from their homeland. And soon pasta had become a much-loved meal throughout the States.
It appears that this is still the case, too. According to 2019 statistics from the International Pasta Organisation, the U.S. now consumes a whopping 5.95 billion pounds of pasta every year, while the average American apparently wolfs down approximately 20 pounds annually. To keep up with this demand, then, the States produces 4.4 billion pounds of the foodstuff per year, making it second only to Italy.
And being a trained chef, Brown is clearly no stranger to pasta. In fact, during the first season of Good Eats in 1999, he dedicated a whole episode to the food. In the intervening decades, though, it seems that his approach to cooking the kitchen staple has somewhat changed.
Yes, Brown confirmed that he’d tweaked his pasta cooking process in a blog published on his website in 2015. And while he’d previously told Good Eats viewers that he’d “never cook pasta in anything less than a gallon of boiling water,” it seemed that he had now lived to eat his own words.
There’d been nothing out of the ordinary about Brown’s previously preferred method of cooking pasta. In fact, it’s long been accepted that the staple should be dropped into a pan of boiling water and cooked until soft or “al dente.” But Brown was about to throw a time-old tradition out the window with his new take on making pasta.
Before Brown completely tore up the pasta-cooking rulebook, though, he acknowledged that many traditionalists wouldn’t agree with his updated method. Nonetheless, he wasn’t one to let tradition stand in the way of progress – especially when it came to food. So, he set out to convince his readers that his way was in fact better.
And while Brown had previously accepted the usual way of cooking pasta, he claimed that he had since opened his mind to new possibilities. On his blog, Brown said of his former self, “I had not yet developed the instinct to question the classically held notions that had been pounded into my head by people with tall hats and funny accents.”
Telling how his method of cooking pasta had since evolved, Brown explained, “I’ve learned that the big-pots-of-boiling-water paradigm is quite simply… a myth. Sure, large amounts of water may be necessary for long strands of dry pasta like spaghetti and bucatini, but when it comes to short shapes like farfalle, macaroni and rigatoni, less is definitely more.” Then, he dropped his bombshell.
Yes, crucially, Brown wasn’t only encouraging people to cook their pasta using less water, but also that boiling the pan first wasn’t necessary. The Good Eats star even confessed, “Although I may be blocked from ever entering Italy again for saying this, I have come to prefer the texture of dry pasta started in cold water.”
Expounding on his technique, Brown suggested using 64 ounces of cold water to one box of pasta. Then, rather than bringing the liquid to the boil first, he advised combining all of the ingredients together in a pan before boiling. After that, the chef said, the heat should be reduced to a simmer for four and a half minutes.
Brown was very particular in the way that cooked pasta should be retrieved from the water, too. Specifically, he advocated the use of a spider strainer to lift the food from the pan rather than draining the contents of the vessel with a colander. Explaining his point of view, Brown wrote, “That hot, starchy water is magical stuff.”
Brown added that this liquid was perfect for reheating pasta prior to serving; alternatively, it could be used to thicken up the sauce. And because Brown’s pasta-cooking technique uses less water than other methods, that magic ingredient was more potent than usual.
Writing on his blog, Brown explained what made his pasta water so special. He said, “The secret is the starch, which is greatly concentrated when you cook the pasta in small amounts of water. In fact, I often ladle a cup or so into another pan, reduce it by half and pour right into my tomato sauces. But that’s another show.”
However, after Brown’s novel way of cooking pasta went live on the internet, it seemed that some were not convinced. Writer Bryn Gelbart, from Insider, was one of the people who decided to put the technique to the test. And he later shared his finds with his readers online.
Gelbart reported that Brown’s process resulted in a “slightly more al dente” texture than the method he typically used. He added, “The noodles did have a better texture, as Brown said they would, and they were more comparable to fresh pasta than the first batch.” Even so, Gelbart concluded that he wouldn’t be changing his ways.
Elsewhere online, people praised Brown’s method as a game-changer when it came to making pasta. On Reddit, for instance, users insisted that the technique cooked noodles quicker, thus saving both time and energy. And with that in mind, Brown’s hack may be worth a go – as long as you don’t mind the potential wrath of Italian grandmothers everywhere.