Few pop culture moments in my 2019 have been as consciousness-altering as the day Taylor Swift revealed that she shaves her legs instead of washing them.
“Shaving cream is like soap, right?” she asked on Ellen in May.
She can’t be serious, I thought. Who doesn’t use soap?
As it turns out, lots of people don’t use it. Taylor and Ellen were two of many voices in the latest and greatest Twitter war—not on whether shaving cream counted as soap, but whether we need to wash our legs at all. And amidst the post-Ellen articles and Twitter threads debating whether Taylor was right (she wasn’t) (she definitely wasn’t), a quieter, less conventional defense of her hygiene practices emerged throughout comments sections and tumblr tags: It doesn’t even matter, because your body doesn’t need soap anyway.
Given the slippery slope I experience with my own hygiene when I skip a shower, I found this line of argument alarming. So, I conducted some cursory research (i.e. furiously Googled “is soap a lie”), and after reading a few articles, felt thoroughly disillusioned. I couldn’t believe how many people were living happy, healthy, odor-free lives without body wash or shower gel.
Dr. James Hamblin, preventative medicine physician and author of If Our Bodies Could Talk, has all but managed to stop showering entirely. He began the transition simply by showering less and using fewer products, before slowly phasing out soap, shampoo, and deodorant. Now, he only occasionally rinses off in the shower if he’s covered in actual dirt, but he doesn’t smell otherwise. “Applying detergents (soaps) to our skin and hair every day disrupts a sort of balance between skin oils and the bacteria that live on our skin,” he explains in The Atlantic. Destroying our skin’s good bacteria with soap prompts our bodies to overproduce oil and bacteria, Hamblin explains, which in turn causes odor.
In short? Body soap makes you smell fresh and clean short-term, but it essentially enables the problem it’s supposed to solve. (Ah, capitalism. You never disappoint.) Breaking up with it does require a transition though (a smelly one), and there didn’t seem to be one conclusive method for tackling it; some people cut back on products overall, some ditch body wash but otherwise shower normally, and others swap traditional soap for natural products or paleo alternatives. But there was one common denominator in every guinea pig story I read: no soap, no smell.
I was intrigued. As someone who grew up around horses and smelled like a literal barnyard animal for 60% of my childhood, I’ve long harbored insecurities about my scent. Could a few uncomfortable transition weeks free me from these along with the capitalistic shackles of hygiene maintenance, all while helping the environment? It seemed too good to be true.
The No-Soap Experiment
Naturally, my soap strike officially began on one of the record-hottest days of the summer. But it was the only work-from-home week in my foreseeable future, and I hoped to ride out my smelliness in peace. It was then or never.
The rules: I would wash my hair and face as usual, apply deodorant once in the morning, and use unscented shaving cream on the odd occasion I felt like shaving—but no body soap for at least 30 days. I would still use hand soap because the CDC is a big fan of it and also because my mom taught me manners, but the rest of me would just get a daily douse of hot water.
I felt like a freshman on the first day of high school: nervous, excited, and oh so naive.
For the first couple days, I barely noticed a difference. Is it really this easy? I wondered. Why don’t more people know about this? And just when I was about to brag to my friends about my scentlessness, my optimism was kicked in the face on day three, wherein I found myself showering for the third time in 12 hours in a hopeless attempt to not smell like the YMCA. At one point I swear I caught a whiff of myself while I was still in the shower.
By day six, deodorant was all but useless, and I somehow felt greasy and dry simultaneously. It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to quit, and I very well may have had I not been contractually committed to write this story. Instead, I showered excessively, ignored the eco-hypocrisy, and powered through. Clearly my various glands were working out the kinks—I was just glad I could avoid human contact for the most part. Until, of course, I couldn’t.
By the time I had to go back to work smelling post-apocalyptic, I had all of one thought: What the absolute fuck was I thinking? But in a twist of fortune, week two represented a welcome tapering. Slowly but surely, my unbearable odor subsided and by the beginning of week three, I had pretty much leveled off. Granted, I was no lavender breeze, but was I ever? I had reached a neutral middle ground, by which I mean: I still smelled like a sweaty commuter at the end of the day, but a quick rinse and I smelled like nothing again. By the end of my 30-day trial, not even my most brutally honest friends and family members could detect a difference in my scent.
The No-Soap Verdict
Knowing I now had the option not to use body soap was predictably liberating, but it almost felt too simple. If I smell and feel exactly the same with or without body wash, did I ever really need it? And what level of privilege does it take to “need” it to begin with? Cutting this one product from my daily regimen not only saved money, plastic, water, and time, but it drew a clearer line for me between necessity and luxury. When I wanted to cave and drown in a bottle of Dove that first week, I had to remind myself that there are worse things to live without—safe, clean water on tap to drink or to bathe whenever I want, for example—and it’s really not that serious.
I did end up finishing the abandoned, half-used bottle of Dove a couple weeks later, but I wasn’t as eager to start using it again as I expected to be. I only use it now for shaving purposes, which I’ll probably continue to do until or unless I manage to give up that convention as well. I just like knowing I don’t have to use it, and knowing how my body will react should I choose to opt out again. Using soap feels like a conscious choice now, rather than an imposed obligation, which I appreciate, even if it means taking responsibility for that choice. It gives me a sense of agency over my body, finances, and environmental impact.
There’s nothing wrong with using body soap or beauty products if it’s what makes you feel good and comfortable, but sometimes it’s equally as refreshing to remember that not everything is the necessity we’re made to believe it is.
Graphic by Coco Lashar.