Lathering up might not be the guilt-free indulgence you thought it was, says Debra Daley.
My delicate shoes, spindly heel and innocent of public pavement, were the cosseted kind you keep for eveningwear. Their exposure to the gritty outdoors had been limited to the brief journey from taxi to entrance hall. And yet, when I arrived at the home of a business acquaintance for a dinner recently, I was instructed by my hostess to remove them “for reasons of hygiene”. Feeling chastised for introducing these vehicles of vileness into the house, I slunk into the drawing room in my stockinged feet and felt somehow grubby. Has our obsession with cleanliness come to this?
The developed world has never been so squeaky clean – to have only one bath or shower a day is now considered the bare minimum of personal hygiene. We wash our faces twice a day. We take sanitizer with us everywhere. We buy 60 percent more household cleaning products than we did 10 years ago. We have accepted the notion that our bodies, as well as our homes, are subject to an indeterminate toxic build-up, and so we embark on detoxes with increasing regularity to the extent that detoxifying has become an entire industry on its own. We are cleaner than we’ve ever been, and we love it.
But whether we’re trying to turn back the tide of contamination with an arsenal of sanitisers, or power-showering our cares away, we can’t ignore the fact that our craving for cleanliness has repercussions. Water supplies are at an all-time low. Our individual water use has increased by 30 percent since 1970, and the Thames region in particular has the lowest amount of water available per person of anywhere in Britain. Globally, climate change is expected to reduce the amount of water available by five percent over the next 25 years. Water boards are launching initiatives imploring us to shower for one minute less a day, and to embrace the concept of the “four-minute shower”.
Plus, over-zealous cleansing isn’t actually that good for us. It’s well known that our super-clean state is making us more susceptible to allergic tendencies and auto-immune diseases. Public-health experts call this the “hygiene hypothesis” and the statistics bear it out – in the past 25 years, for example, incidences of asthma have increased four-fold in adults, and six-fold among children. Ironically, there are also beauty implications in over-cleansing: stripping hair of its natural oils or skin of its protective acid mantle can lead to dull hair , dry skin, and maybe some dermatitis here and there. Too much self-laundering is counter-productive, not to mention the exposure to too many cheap chemicals.
But it’s hard to resist soaping up, because there’s a powerful psychological dimension to cleansing ourselves. The act of personal body care is therapeutic as well as hygienic, and the bathroom is our own private temple of luxe. The ubiquity and variety of fragrant, frothy toiletries now available have encouraged us to use them profusely – and not only for the reasons of hygiene. We have learnt to revel in the experience of sensuous, beautiful cleanliness. All that foam and lather feels so generous, so abundant. No matter what scarcities attend your life – lack of love, perhaps, or insufficient funds – at this moment in your temple-bathroom, balancing on the palm of your hand a decadent outpouring of foam, you have plenty – and you are going to lavish it on yourself.
But what’s making all that lather? And was it made to be layered on so quite excessively? Surfactants, the chemical compounds that make all that luscious foam possible, are traditionally derived from petrochemicals, and although they are biodegradable, they are tough to break down. The concentrations of these foaming agents in sewage plants and ground water may be tiny, but their long-term consequences are not yet known. Environmental groups say we cannot ignore the impact of our zealous cleansing actions on the environment, whether it is the pressure on the water supply or concern about the chemicals we wash down our drains. But do big companies and mass-market consumers really care about the environmental impact of surfactants? Current market research says that they do. The Kline Group’s 2007 industry report on raw materials for cosmetics and toiletries is clear about that. Consumers want to use more natural products. Publicity about questionable ingredients has already motivated companies to reassess the raw materials they use, and to consider ethical actions such as limiting emissions, reducing water use and minimizing the consumption of non-renewable fuels.
Additionally, it is now possible to create 100 per cent natural surfactants – indeed, Steve Shiel, associate director at Procter & Gamble Beauty, says that it’s entirely feasible to create a shampoo that doesn’t lather at all. The problem is, consumers simply would not think it cleaned effectively. “Lather is a signal to the brain that says ‘cleansing’, just like the bitter taste of cough medicine implies you’ll get better, and the ammonia smell of blonde hair colour tells you it’s working. None of those ingredients need to be in the products any more, but they represent important psychological cues.” Imagine it: a shampoo without that abundance of sudsy soapiness seems scarcely worth using. (So complex is our relationship with lather that Shiel notes how even the type of suds can be skewed to different consumers. “We tailor the lather to match what different consumer groups are looking for – for example, a Pantene consumer might not want the lather to feel and look the same as a Herbal Essences girl would.”)
Companies have also been happy to sell us bumper-sized bottles of cleansing products so that we’ve adopted a “more is cleaner” attitude. Commercially savvy, certainly, but environmentally? Hardly. So given our love of suds, could we get used to washing our hair with a non-lathering shampoo, or using a single drop instead of a big glug of bath foam?
“Yes, we can” says Bryan Meehan, founder of Nude skincare. “We formulated our products so that they would be effective using only one or two squirts or a couple of drops. People are really starting to take this on board.” There’s a recent precedent in household washing detergents, too: we’ve gone from huge boxes of energy-guzzling powders to small tablets that use fewer resources and less water, and accepted these new products with enthusiasm. A similar evolution may happen in the personal-care area – all it takes is for us to alter our notion of what being “clean” really means.
It’s certainly true that everyone has their own definition of being clean. One acquaintance will happily go a week without washing the hair, but insists on washing her hands every time she’s been outside. Another has a thing about washing her feet before she gets to bed. Yet another only feels “clean” if she has washed with Cussons Imperial Leather; she has to take it on holiday with her as nondescript hotel soap simply won’t do. (Marcia Kilgore, founder of “joy of cleansing” brands Bliss and Soap & Glory, says that you can gauge your own propensity for cleanliness by your attitude to camping: “If the thought of it sends shudders down your spine, you’re probably fairly dependent on suds.”) But where do all these quirks come from? According to Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean, ultimately it’s about control: “As more of the world spins out of control, it seems there is a greater drive to manage what we can, however pointless it may be.”
Yet, of course, some point to what already amounts to a backlash. Witness the trend for using dry shampoo to eke out a blow-dry, or the increasing number of women who, are opting out of hair-washing at home, preferring to make a weekly visit to a salon, to have their hair washed and blow-dried. There are even some fringier groups with online forums who discuss the fact that they no longer even use shampoo. And incredibly, a recent UK survey by Mira Showers has revealed that 43 per cent of women polled admitted to not washing for more than three days. For the record, most experts, like immunologist Dr Mary Ruebush (author of Why Dirt Is Good) say that aside from a daily bath or shower, washing your hands often – with plain old soap and water – is as excessive as anyone’s cleansing regime needs to be.
The time seems right – as we rebound from a period of excess – for a different point of view. Our innate desire for self-improvement is entering a less profligate cycle. Being overly fastidious about our houses and our bodies is looking irrelevant now that we have bigger problems on our minds, such as the economy and the environment. Ashenburg adds that in the future, perhaps, the choice to be clean may not even be totally ours: “Nothing would change our bathing habits more quickly and thoroughly than a serious water shortage.”
But how hard on ourselves can we really be? Excess may have lost its luster, but we still need delight in our lives – and personal body care can deliver it. Its sensual nature has a deep connection with our animal selves. The caressing action of massaging creams into our hair, stimulates production of endorphins that give us a sense of wellbeing and signals a momentary break from domestic and work demands. Surely – environmental concerns notwithstanding – of all the things we might berate ourselves for, being clean should scarcely be one of them.
By Debra Daley Vogue UK September 2009
By Debra Daley Vogue UK September 2009