Sorry, germaphobes: Bacteria is hot right now.
Anti-bacterial soaps just got banned in Minnesota. Triclosan — an ingredient used in many body washes and anti-bacterial soaps — might be linked to antibiotic resistance. At the same time, a fascinating piece by Julia Scott for the New York Times floats an interesting idea: Instead of trying to rid ourselves of bacteria, we should be bathing in it.
Scott spent four weeks spraying her body with bacteria. Not just any bacteria: She drenched herself with a "living bacterial skin tonic," developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, MA. Humans used to have this stuff all over us, until we became "civilized." As Scott writes, (emphasis mine):
The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide.
Scott did not use soap, shampoo, or deodorant during the four weeks she sprayed herself with AO+. She writes that no one could really tell the difference after she spent a few days without soap: "Aside from my increasingly greasy hair, the real changes were invisible." In week two, she began to regret living without soap and shampoo: "People began asking if I'd 'done something new' with my hair, which turned a full shade darker for being coated in oil that my scalp wouldn't stop producing." She also felt that her armpits were stinky — and people noticed: "One friend detected the smell of onions. Another caught a whiff of 'pleasant pot.'"
But as time went on, something happened: The "good" bacteria were thriving on her skin, and she had a kind of ecosystem happening, in which her body was cleaning itself.
When I visited the gym, I followed AOBiome's instructions, misting myself before leaving the house and again when I came home. The results: After letting the spray dry on my skin, I smelled better. Not odorless, but not as bad as I would have ordinarily. And, oddly, my feet didn't smell at all.
My skin began to change for the better. It actually became softer and smoother rather than dry and flaky, as though a sauna's worth of humidity had penetrated my winter-hardened shell. And my complexion, prone to hormone-related breakouts, was clear. For the first time ever, my pores seemed to shrink. As I took my morning "shower" — a three-minute rinse in a bathroom devoid of hygiene products — I remembered all the antibiotics I took as a teenager to quell my acne. How funny it would be if adding bacteria were the answer all along.
As she approached the end of the experiment, Scott had embraced the bacteria and felt unsure about ditching returning to her regular routine. Before she'd started the no-soap-no-shampoo month, she'd packed all of her hygiene products in a cooler and put them away. She says, "On the last day of the experiment, I opened it up, wrinkling my nose at the chemical odor. Almost everything in the cooler was a synthesized liquid surfactant, with lab-manufactured ingredients engineered to smell good and add moisture to replace the oils they washed away." She ended up throwing most of them away and buying a basic soap and a fragrance-free shampoo with minimal ingredients. Of course, a week after the experiment had ended — after just a few showers — all of the "good" bacteria she'd cultivated was gone.
What's interesting about the AO+ experiment is that while it could be seen as the future, it's actually the past — how we used to live before we became obsessed with sanitation. Obviously, advances in sanitation have had benefits, slowing the spread of infection and disease. But after being inundated with aggressively marketed wonder products, we came to rely on chemicals. Something's shifting, from man-made to natural — as it always does, from '50s starch to '60s hippies, from plastic pop stars to Shailene Woodley — and as we become more and more about organic food and eco-friendly clothing, it makes sense that we re-evaluate our cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and body washes. As one Times commenter says of the human body: "The machine works as designed with surprisingly little intervention... especially from your wallet."