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Water-Only Washing, part 2: Attitudes

November 25, 2010

In a previous post, Water-Only Washing, Part 1: some background, I talked some about how I came to try water-only washing for both my hair and then the rest of my body. The physical transition may have been easy so far–no excess greasiness or strange smells–but the mental transition is a totally different matter.

As I mentioned, I resisted the idea of using any non-shampoo methods of washing my hair at first, out of revulsion. (I still don’t like the sound of the “no poo” term, though that wasn’t the revulsion in question.) Visions of stinky greasiness and other people running away in horror were doing frenetic dances in my head. Applying some critical thinking, I managed to get past that and try it to see what would happen. Rationally, what’s the worst thing that could happen? I notice my hair doesn’t smell too good, and do a couple of extra lathers.

And none of the dire predictions came to pass.

Once I figured out that the baking soda and vinegar approach was drying my hair out, I had a hard time with the idea of trying conditioner-only washing. More visions of greasiness and stench; at least I knew that, between them, baking soda and vinegar will clean just about anything, and had been using them around the house a lot. But, I went ahead and gave it a try. Guess what? Nothing horrible happened. (But it still dried out my hair.)

In spite of recognizing the all-too-familiar “oh crap, I’m going to turn myself into a revolting malodorous pariah!” mental loops by that point, they kicked in again when I thought about trying WO hair washing. And again when I considered experimenting with not using soap on the rest of my dry, eczema-prone skin–in spite of medical advice suggesting just that (“Soap is very drying to the skin and is best avoided by people with eczema.”), and its making perfect sense that someone with skin problems would want to leave their skin’s acid mantle alone as far as possible.

I knew that soap or detergent residue in clothes or on my skin made me itch like mad and break out in rashes, but I even had trouble mentally connecting it to the scalp and skin problems I’d been having, the idea that “clean == with every molecule of oil removed” was so ingrained. I am still getting used to the idea that clean skin does not have to be dry and tight-feeling–and that this feeling is not somehow good. Even when I suspected that a particular eczema eruption was coming from vigorously scrubbing the area with soap, there didn’t seem to be much of a choice there: itch, or be repugnant. The same went with applying antiperspirant to the damaged skin directly after shaving, which I knew was giving me rashes. (Then there’s the apparently common “stripper secret” recommendation to use it on even more sensitive areas to prevent shaving rashes, which just makes me shudder.)

Then, treating what I was contemplating doing as an experiment, so I could keep some emotional distance (and look at the “experimental” WO-washing thread linked before!), I started reading more from people who had tried this. And, especially entering into it with that purposeful detachment, I couldn’t help but start noticing some patterns.

I’d already cut down on how often I was lathering myself up, especially with winter coming, but was horribly uncomfortable with the idea of not giving myself a thorough soap scrubbing at least twice a week. Then I could just about see that nothing bad was happening in-between, so I started just scrubbing extra-well with water and a washcloth, and soaping up my “pits and bits” (when it’s not a good idea to soap up said bits). Again, nothing bad happened. Even when I tried not using soap anywhere–and, you guessed it, nothing bad happened!–I kept using antiperspirant.

BTW, now I have stopped doing that, too. And nothing terrible has come to pass. Just using virgin coconut oil regularly as a moisturizer did a lot to help my dry skin and eczema, but stopping with the soap has improved the situation a lot in just a couple of weeks. I also have some keratosis pilaris, which made me scrub myself even harder to try to exfoliate. It tends to act up in winter, when it’s not exposed to sunlight and skin gets drier; in fact, the areas where it shows up (like the backs of the arms and shoulders) are areas that tend to get rubbed by clothing and badly dried out. But, it has improved remarkably since I’ve stopped scrubbing at it with soap, and am making sure to moisturize better. Now, I’m trying only scrubbing at it at all once a week, which still makes me uncomfortable given the conditioning there.

When I ran across a rather good post–Paleo I Don’t Care: I Like No Soap; No Shampoo, at Free The Animal (ignoring the “chicks” and some other stuff)–and started going through the comments, it kept feeling like I was reading about myself. All kinds of people were reporting having dealt with the same layers of resistance, and a lot were still feeling compelled to lather up the “pits and bits” and/or use antiperspirants. (And a lot of them were still convinced it was totally necessary to avoid being disgusting.) It reminded me a little too much of cult programming; people even kept using pretty much the same words, and I am not exempt there.

Reading through another thread on WO body washing on Long Hair Community–not surprisingly, inspired by the WO hair washing one–the patterns are eerily similar. Some other pretty good posts are linked from No Soap or Poo Update at Free The Animal, including Sean Bonner’s I’ve given up using soap & shampoo forever, which also looks at some of the programming overriding critical thinking.

This is some really powerful social programming, and I know I had mostly just been taking it for granted as received truth–even when I am pretty big on the critical thinking otherwise. It came as a bit of a shock.

Also shocking: the anticipated and real reactions from other people that kept coming up. As the author of the AMERICAN STOPS WASHING HAIR! series linked in the last post summed it up:

One thing I’ve found interesting about the whole ‘speriment is the way people react when I tell them what’s going on. There are two basic camps: The Intrigued and The Horrified. Of course there are subdivisions within each camp, but this is pretty much the dividing line.

The Intrigued are the ones who quickly assess what’s going on, and although it exists outside the commonplace of their own personal hair paradigm, they’re filled with acceptance, wonder, inquiry and even glee over the whole thing.

The Horrified are the ones who take several minutes to even begin to comprehend what it is I’m telling them, then once it settles in that I’m not yanking their tightly taut chains, look at me as though I’ve just shat on their kitchen table.

His title no doubt comes from that camp’s reactions. Some people, presumably out of trouble dealing with the cognitive dissonance between what they’ve been told and the evidence in front of them, persistently conflate “not using soap” with “not washing at all, in any way, ever”. On the huge WO hair-washing thread that got me going, someone even came in after 40-odd pages of people writing about washing their hair to leave this bit of “my mind can’t process what you’re saying” wisdom:

oh my goodness, I can’t believe some of you haven’t washed your hair for months! … My hair gets oily after only one day of not washing. And then I have to wear it back, cause it looks so oily up top. I guess different hair types react differently to not being washed.

Again, I do not mean to single out individuals, but the bigger pattern driving the wooly thinking! It’s like a divide by zero error or something.

Someone else came in after “only” 15 pages to do some sanity-questioning concern trolling, from the great store of knowledge she gained by interning at a psych hospital in college.

One commenter on the Paleo I Don’t Care: I Like No Soap; No Shampoo post pretty well hit bingo, other than grudgingly being able to admit that it seems to work for someone:

I stumbled across this website because of my boyfriend, who stopped using any and all products (soap, shampoo, deodorant, shaving cream, etc) 2 months ago. I truly thought this was absurd and vile, and figured he MUST be the only person on the planet to do such a thing – nobody else could be so insane! Apparently, I was wrong…

have to (very) grudgingly admit that he does not smell at all … no hair funk, no body odor, no armpit odor, no bad breath…

I think it is extremely bizarre how he does not use ANY products and does not smell at ALL…

As a female, I feel going completely “product-free” would not be reasonable/feasible to attempt, and I have no desire to try it. I like using all of my stinky girl-products! 🙂 I just wanted to share my comments as someone who thinks this whole ‘product-free’ thing is sort of disgusting, but at the same time, there really appears to be something to it…my b/f is a prime example!

(A response hits that particular nail right on the head, IMO: ‘Women have been more heavily conditioned, and for longer, by advertising than men have. Women have also been brainwashed by religion to think of ourselves as “unclean”, too, so we face a double-whammy that way’)

No wonder so many people are hesitant to tell even their partners and other close family members about their wacky bathing experiments. (That’s just one example among many, many, many I’ve run across.) There are other reports of reactions just about like that, but with the other person just getting insulting and refusing to believe that it is possible that anyone could “not bathe” without their noticing for months! “Crazy” gets thrown around a lot, besides “disgusting”.

I was even hesistant to write about this, half-expecting some really hostile responses coming from our old friend, cognitive dissonance. With the amount of these attitudes I’d managed to internalize myself… I have told Nigel about it, because I knew he wouldn’t really care; I used to find it pretty offputting, just the idea that he doesn’t use deodorants. (Apparently, they really do make him sweatier and stinkier, besides causing some irritation.)

When people are even expressing worries that (a) washing themselves daily in a basin, as used to be very common, with one thorough shower weekly and/or (b) using non-soap cleaning products (in this case, “soap-like” Rhassoul clay) will turn them into reeking pariahs, there’s something wrong. It makes no sense that you couldn’t stay acceptably clean that way, but still the emotional reactions pop up. Just one sample, from comments on a post called “Strip Washing Challenge: Can a Sinkful of Water Get You Clean?” in the first place: “Can someone tell me if you can do this for longer than 1 week? I’d love to try this with the clay, so if it’s unhealthy for longer periods..please let me know” That would sound even odder if I hadn’t seen fears expressed about your hair falling out if you don’t use shampoo frequently!

This societal pattern really does seem to me to be another very thinly secularized manifestation of the “What’s Happened to Original Sin? It’s Become Unhealthy” approach to life. With either set of justifications and emphases, we’re supposed to try very hard to transcend being human–and are in for heresy-like reactions if we admit that we are questioning some of the base assumptions. Given the strong moralistic reactions, it’s hard to believe that this is only about physical cleanliness. Advertising just hooks into this very successfully; a lot of it is really sleazy, but it’s more of a symptom. People seem almost eager to be told that they are disgusting in a variety of ways, and that there are expensive ways to reduce this inherent uncleanliness.

And a lot of people seem eager to distrust their own perceptions here too. Granted, my sensory issues make it so that not being able to stop smelling myself (or anything else) is a problem, but another repetitive theme I kept running across is “maybe I really do stink without knowing it, and need feedback to know that I don’t smell horrible”. That’s just one example.

Just recognizing on a deeper level that, as a society, we’re just as messed-up about what constitutes acceptable hygiene as we are about a lot of other things having to do with people’s bodies and bodily autonomy has helped me work out some of my own weird mental scripts of the “revolting pariah” variety. (Yeah, the repetitive content ought to be a clue there, not to mention the horribly repetitive “every sane, right-thinking person” theme.) I am feeling rather disillusioned, in a beneficial way.

Which leads me to another bit of information, which still has me feeling more than a little betrayed, gullible, and generally irked: there is a good reason that I really do not stink, and have noticed no change whatsoever since I stopped using anything under my arms other than the coconut oil I use everywhere else.

I thought I remembered reading something about a connection between having dry earwax and not having much BO a few years back, so I did a little Googling.

From a 2006 New York Times article, Japanese Scientists Identify Ear Wax Gene:

The dry form is quite common in Native Americans…

Since it seems unlikely that having wet or dry earwax could have made much difference to an individual’s fitness, the earwax gene may have some other, more important function. Dr. Yoshiura and his colleagues suggest the gene would have been favored because of its role in sweating.

They write that earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, whereas the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have greater body odor. Several Asian features, such as small nostrils and the fold of fat above the eyelid, are conjectured to be adaptations to the cold. Less sweating, the Japanese authors suggest, may be another adaptation to the cold climate in which the ancestors of East Asian peoples are thought to have lived.

OTOH, Europeans coming from higher latitudes don’t show the same presumed adaptation. Razib Khan goes into greater detail about the allele distributions in Body odor, Asians, and earwax at Gene Expression, which also offers this introductory bit:

During one of these quasi-salons a friend whose parents were from Korea expressed some surprise and disgust at the idea of wet earwax. It turns out he had not been aware of the fact that the majority of the people in the world have wet, sticky, earwax. I’d stumbled onto that datum in the course of my reading, and had to explain to most of the discussants that East Asians generally have dry earwax, while convincing my Korean American friend that wet earwax was not something that was totally abnormal. Earwax isn’t something we explore in polite conversation, so it makes sense that most people would be ignorant of the fact that there was inter-population variation on this phenotype.

I honestly did not know that most people in the world have gloopy earwax, either. I am at least not aware of anyone in my family having it (and the variant producing wet wax is apparently dominant), though this is indeed not a popular conversational topic. (Other than probably my more straightforwardly Euro-American stepdad, which would explain the BO levels he can get, and what he does to the earplugs he leaves lying around. Ick.) I was aware that some people do get their ears blocked up with wax, but couldn’t really figure out how that was possible; I pictured something like a compacted collection of pencil shavings! Then I saw (Swedish) Nigel cleaning his ears, and was amazed at what came out. That’s how I found out about the phenotype difference in the first place, trying to make sure that startling substance wasn’t coming from some kind of medical problem even though he seemed unconcerned. *wry smile* I’d never seen anything like it.

And it turns out that not only do we dry earwax types not sweat as much, our apocrine glands apparently also do not secrete much if any of the proteins that get broken down to produce strong BO! As that article suggests, the worst I have ever noticed is “only a faint acidic odor”–and that has usually required either a hormonally (further-) cranked-up sense of smell or sticking my nose in an armpit.

It’s a lot like when I finally figured out that I really have little enough body hair that nobody even seemed to notice when I stopped shaving my legs. (And am now compromising on the ingrow-prone underarms, by taking hair clippers to them.) I am more than a little peeved that I believed for so long that I needed to go to great lengths to avoid unknowingly walking around in a cloud of funk that would knock a dog off a meat wagon. Seriously. I also thought I produced a lot of sweat, in general, but then I see how some people soak their shirts with it.

BTW, no wonder I had serious problems from medications that reduced sweating as a side effect (including topiramate)–and this was not taken very seriously. If you’re not putting out much perspiration to begin with, well…

I am still fighting the urge to go and scrub at my armpits as soon as I notice any feeling of moisture whatsoever, without the psychological cushion of knowing there’s deodorant there. Perhaps oddly in context, I never got worried about unpleasant smells emanating from the “bits” (and certainly not to the point of trying AFAICT undiluted vinegar instead of commercial “feminine deodorants”–that’s got to sting!). Too bad it was easier to ignore the evidence that this was not a problem with the pits either! In hotter weather, if I am still feeling insecure, I might mix up a container of the coconut oil with some non-irritating essential oils to put under my arms–but at least now I know it would be for the psychological benefit.

And I know I have sort of been mentally glossing over the fact that my paternal grandfather never used deodorant, and smelled just fine (he also washed off at the sink at least three times a day in summer). Not to mention that a lot of my ancestors were not just very big on cleanliness, but relied mainly on things like (at least) daily going to water (bad artwork optional!), salt scrubs, and mineral springs for skin problems, to stay that way. (Heck, there are still stories about people trying to lure English visitors in particular into rivers, with varying levels of subtlety, for destinking! “Wow, the water feels really good! Join us for a swim?”) More cognitive dissonance, and it ain’t pretty close up.

One title that says a lot, at Shanghaiist: Do Asians need deodorant? Unilever say yes.

Whilst the UK currently leads the rest of the world in deodorant spending at around 125RMB per person annually, China’s average is 0RMB with only 7 per cent of all of Asia reckoned to be using BO basher…

Still, that’s nothing a few good borderline pornographic adverts can’t overcome.

I’m glad it hasn’t worked so far, at least. That yearly 125RMB (CNY) would apparently be £11.95 (or $18.80 US)–which doesn’t sound like much, until you multiply it by 61,792,000!

Me looking particularly buttless, walking across a park with the dog
Unilever, Procter & Gamble, et al. can kiss my gluteal orthotics. Oh that something so simple-if-risible would fix the back… 😉

To wrap things up, one treatment that I found amusing (particularly in the context of Wannabeness): Liz Gray’s How much Indian are you really? Check your earwax, in Native Times:

Okay, we’ve heard it all now. Those strange statements arising from discussions of how you can tell if someone is Native American.

Although no one will admit it in public, we go off to the privacy of our own home and see if we have the traits “they” are talking about, even if we are obviously Indian. One that I heard in college was that Native Americans and Asians have Shovel-shaped incisors. That is, that your two front teeth on the top are concaved on their backside, where non-Indians’ are smooth and resemble the front of the tooth – in other words they are curved in like the shape of a shovel. (You’re touching your teeth with your tongue right now, aren’t you?)

Of coarse there are the jokes of having no rear end to hold your pants up. That’s probably the most common trait we joke about…

But here’s a new one for you that scientific studies have proven: that there are two types of earwax, wet and dry…

So the next time someone tells you they are Native American and you aren’t sure, do your own study to find out. Check their teeth, their ears and their backside to determine if they have these Native American traits listed above. I’m sure they won’t mind this at all. Help yourself.

Unfortunately spot-on. Dentists do love to comment on the “you’re Indian, aren’t you?” teeth, but at least there’s some legitimate interest in them. Then there are the lovely extra molar roots–really fun when one needs pulled, especially with lots of chiseling required and trouble getting things numb. :/ Urgh. Dental anxiety? Never.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2010 9:18 pm

    Wow, that’s really interesting.

    I heard about “no poo” a while ago, and certainly like the idea of not having to use unsustainably-manufactured, often-petroleum-derived, often-animal-tested goop every day to be clean. While I haven’t abandoned shampoo altogether, I have gone to only washing my hair every other day or every three days. It seems to work well; my hair actually seems to do better when I don’t wash it every day — it’s less dry.

    Not sure I’d go so far as to renounce using soap on my *body* every day or every other day, though. I wash my face every day because I’ve found it protects against acne — I have ridiculously oily skin! I have also been told I have some powerful B.O., so I’m not sure water alone would work for me.

    Yay for you finding personal-hygiene stuff that works for you, though! And I totally agree about cultural conditioning — we *are* constantly told our bodies are gross, and smelly, and that we have to do all sorts of ridiculous and time-consuming crap to make them acceptable for other people to be around.

    • urocyon permalink
      December 2, 2010 10:28 pm

      A number of people with not-so-hard water have had pretty good luck with the Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap or soap shampoo bars, with an acidic rinse to get rid of any residue. I didn’t even want to try that, with the liquid chalk we’ve got, but it does get away from the petrochemicals and animal testing. With hair that’s less dry, you might also have better luck with the baking soda and vinegar approach. There’s a pretty good no ‘poo LJ community, besides the other resources on the web.

      Yeah, I would imagine that stopping using soap wouldn’t work for everybody. But, a lot of the people who have written about it (thinking specifically of the Free The Animal post and comments) have oilier skin and stronger smells. A lot of them were reporting that the oil production slowed down and balanced out a lot once they stopped the frequent soaping. It makes sense, considering that really does seem to happen with the scalp, but probably not everybody’s will do that. YMMV!

      It’s just nice to see that there are multiple options there. 🙂

    • Gertrude permalink
      January 5, 2012 9:12 pm

      I actually stopped using deodorant 5 years ago, Have not used soap or shampoo for a year and a half and went WO almost a year ago. The deodorant is touch and go, I too use coconut oil occasionally, but I find my armpit odour is worse depending on the foods I eat, especially if in combination with my menstrual cycle. The funny thing is, the foods I know I’m sensitive or allergic to and meat, seem to be the biggest culprits. The no soap thing was the easiest of the three. Not only does my body not smell, but my skin is soft and hydrated; I no longer need moisturizer, even living in Canada, and coming out of the shower I can see the water just beads on my skin. The no poo WO thing was a full cycle of emotional turmoil in going against the severely drilled in idea of what was considered hygienic, mainly because I drug out the transition period (lots of greasies and waxies and a whole new idea of what hair is supposed to feel like ) by going to olive oil soap (my first ssl free shampoo) to Earthsafe (a tree sap based non-shampoo) to hard water only to filtered water with a few drops of jojoba oil for the ends. My hair is silky now that I use filtered water (a juice jug and a half is all it takes). Again the oiliness (no more waxies) is affected by what I eat and my menstrual cycle – omega 3 foods counter it somewhat.

      I say go for the no soap thing. it only takes three days to notice a difference. If you don’t like it, start using soap again, easy! And if your body odour is that bad, maybe look at your diet?

  2. MJP permalink
    March 19, 2012 4:21 pm

    Hey – I stumbled across your blog looking for info on water-only washing. But what caugtht my eye was your final comment about orthotics and back problems. I have no idea what the nature of your disability is, but if you do have some issues with your back and get told by doctors that you have to wear “supportive” shoes, then you should check out the world of barefooting and minimalist footwear. It goes along with your experience with water-only washing (that a lot of what we’ve been conditioned to believe about cleanliness is not in fact true). Likewise with shoes – much of what we’ve been conditioned to believe about what our feet need is not true.

    Most mainstream footwear squishes your toes into abnormal shapes (leading to bunions and other problems), forces you to walk on a raised heel – even if just a 1/2″ like in running shoes or oxfords (putting your knees, hips, and back out of alignment), and artificially supports your arch muscles so that they essentially atrophy and can’t perform the weight-supporting function they are meant to. The solution? Not MORE cushioning and “support” but LESS. Take off the shoes and let your feet be the amazing mechanical systems they were designed/have evolved to be. When you do need to wear shoes (as we all do in certain settings), get a pair that are completely flat, flexible, and with a toe shape that allows your toes to fully spread out as they are meant to. I have been wearing minimalist shoes for almost 3 years now and have eliminated my back and knee pain. I also no longer get fatigued by standing for long periods because my foot muscles are stronger. Just Google “minimalist footwear” or “barefoot running” to find a host of resources. This is a good one to start with:

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