What Happens to People Who Don't Bathe?

In modern times, humans have become obsessed with cleanliness-a daily bath or shower is standard for many people. But, in my reading, I’ve come across people in modern times who rarely bathed. Some examples:
-Tibetan lamas: Everest climber Eric Shipton once remarked that is was better if you approached a lama upwind. One lama he met had bathed only once a year
-the Inuit: outside of sweat baths, its hard to bathe if you live in a land of snow and ice
-desert dwellers (bedouins, tuaregs, etc.): no lakes or rivers, limited water supplies
So if you stay dirty, are you more prone to get sick? Recently, it has been found that a lot of our smelly bodily fluids have anti-bacterial functions-take smegma-once it was thought that it should be washed away-now it has been found to protect from infections. So all that stuff that stays on your skin (dried sweat, shed skin cells, etc.) have some positive function?

Whatever positive functions dirt has is outweighed by the negatives.

Or, to look at it from Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s perspective, if you accumulate enough dirt, radishes will sprout in your ears.

They come to the library.

Another benefit is that you will easily blend in with the camels.

No one invades your personal space.

I’ve heard the dirt level reaches a plateau and doesn’t increase any more.

They are less prone to get sick because their immune systems had the exposures needed to form immunity for most things they come in contact with. They still stink.


Actually, I’ll pass.:smiley:


I don’t know how true it is, but Ken Follett suggested in Pillars of the Earth that people who didn’t wash regularly broke out in sores. This will apparently happen if you leave fecal matter in place, according to papers cited in the book End Product: The First Taboo, so I can believe it about not washing in general.

That said, I’ve heard people who lived in wilderness areas say that our tendency to wash thoroughly so often is unnecessary. I suspect that I would be a great deal greasier if I lived that way (my hair sems to require washing everey other day at the outside if I don’t want it to get palpably greasy), but maybe not unhealthy. Still, I note that those people still washed regularly.

My dad always said that, when he was young (1930s), they took two baths a year, “dirty or not”. He was probably exaggerating.

On a SciAm podcast a few years back, there was a lady talking about the cleanliness of astronauts. She said clothing played a large role in scraping away the dead skin and absorbing the various humors, thus keeping the body clean (and the clothes filthy).

This would suggest that, among non-bathers, there’s a big difference between nudists and non-nudists.

Sounds like impetigo, which is often caused by a staph infection.

My husband and I got into a polite argument on this very subject a couple of days ago – he observed that when I bathe our two-year old, which happens every night as part of The Bedtime Routine, while I dump lots of water over him (which he loves), I use soap only on his butt and privates most days, with soap elsewhere only either when there’s visible schmutz or about once a week, whichever comes first. Husband was worried this would be a health threat, imagining that disease bacteria would grow out of control on an unwashed boy. I told him that it’s actually potentially unhealthy to use as much soap on skin as normal Americans do these days, because a) it strips away natural skin oils, which have a protective function, and 2) it washes away the good bacteria just as much as the bad, and the good stuff normally out-competes the bad stuff if you leave it alone. And also that stuff about challenging the immune system mentioned above. Though this does not apply when feces or urine are involved, hence the butt soap, or if there’s an infection, or pizza smushed into hair, or what have you. And that once he hits puberty, more soap will be called for when the stinky apocrine sweat glands come online.

Husband found my overall argument questionable and asked for cites after we put the kid in bed, apparently mostly because I sound particularly annoying and pedantic when I get to pontificating about science-y stuff like that. :frowning: We had to go Google around a bit to settle it.

Turns out most medical sites, including dermatology ones, if they discuss this subject at all, say something like “For skin health and comfort, use a non-soap cleanser and a moisturizer daily.” What exactly counts as “non-soap cleanser” is not clarified, nor are the specifics of why cleanser might be needed, etc. No cites found there. However, the Wikipedia page on skin flora supports my science-y talk; husband agreed that I might not have been talking out my ass after all, and agreed it would be OK to use soap on the kid as sparingly as I do, so long as we follow up every bath with jojoba oil as a moisturizer per the American Dermatologists’ Whatever-It-Was site he looked at. So we do. Kid seems to like the rubdown.

I don’t remember the specifics and had no luck with a quick search, but IIRC the early history of soap advertising campaigns had a lot to do with convincing modern Americans that lack of bathing would lead to all kinds of horrors, including disease, wrinkles, old-maid-hood, and questionable morals. They were basically lying.

My thought was that: if you don’t bathe, your skin will be crawling with bacteria (feeding on the skin cells, sweat, etc.). These bacteria will likely be harmless, and out-compete disease bacteria. So being dirty might be a defense against many disease germs.
If you bathe every day, and use soap, you strip away the bacterial layer-exposing your skin to new and possibly harmful bacteria.

I once volunteered as staff in a outdoor kids’ vacation camp for a week. The camp’s theme was: “Stone Age”, it was located near an old barn in the middle of nowhere, and it was rather primitive. No showers or sinks, toilet was a hole in the ground with a wooden shed above it. No opportunity for swimming, either. And we had to work every day for a couple of hours in the sun doing work in the nature reserve (pulling out birches to keep the Dutch heather fields intact)

When I arrived, some staff had been there for three days already, setting it all up. They reeked. The guy more then the girls. Oddly enough, I got used to it within a day or two. All kids on that camp got used to it. We must have stunk real bad after a week when everybody went home to the civilized world again.

There are very few diseases that are transmitted through intact skin.

I did a week on a schooner and only got two showers (and one was the night before we docked so they’d let me on the plane.) No swimming, at least not for me in no damned 55 degree water! It was fine. I felt a lot better after I took a shower but nobody seemed to smell. Lots of fresh air, though.

Then they upgraded me to first class on my way home and I was a bit embarrassed.

Make that a lot embarrassed.

In the absence of studies and cites, I have to question why the bacterial layer you are stripping away is good bacteria, and why subsequent bacteria is bad. Could be either way or a combination, no?

Have a look at the skin flora Wikipedia entry – they seem to think skin can generally be counted on to have mostly good bacteria: