London, October 16, 2017
One way to find out who your friends are:
is to give up soap and deodorant and ask for help to monitor how bad you smell. Even my partner refuses: “Is there any hope we can keep the magic alive?” he asks as I attempt to cover his face with my armpit.
But my children, whose love is mammalian and humour is gross-out, comply. We get into a routine: my arms outstretched as if for a hug, but instead they tuck their little noses into my darkest recesses and snuffle. This feels, somehow, like it once used to.
That’s no coincidence. For I am not just neglecting my personal hygiene, like those earnest people you meet, usually in Stroud, who tell you their bodies are “self-regulating” and you nod and think, “Yeah, but you reek of hamster.”
I am conducting an experiment at the vanguard of dermatological research.
Twice a day I spray on live bacteria. Live bacteria that has been cultivated from soil. I am literally covering myself in dirt to get clean.
It sounds crazy, but is it crazier than, say, our multibillion personal-care industry being an expensive way of killing off the very bacteria that would do a better job? Day one: I put my trusty deodorant in the bin. I’ve been dependent since I was 12 years old, and to keep it would be too tempting. Instead I stand in my pants next to the fridge door and spray my pits from a chilled bottle labelled “Mother Dirt”. It is indistinguishable from water, yet costs £30. “Welcome to the future!” I say to my family. They say I smell of “puddles”.
Like so many great body-odour stories, this began with a first date. It was 14 years ago, and David Whitlock, an American chemical engineer trained at MIT, was out at dinner with a woman who kept horses. Why, she asked him, did her horses roll in the dirt? He mumbled about rubbing off bugs, but she wasn’t impressed. The date was going nowhere and Whitlock went back to his lab. Why did so many mammals roll in dirt? It must play an evolutionary role in their health.
He zeroed in on a bacteria found in soil and streams: Nitrosomonas eutropha (known as N eutropha). He scraped some off the floor of a stable in Boston. It feeds on ammonia (which is found in sweat) and turns it into nitric oxide. Nitric oxide was crowned “molecule of the year” in 1992 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Why? It has a role in alleviating depression, lowering blood pressure and regulating sleep. But its relevance for Whitlock was that it is an anti-inflammatory. He was excited. Could N eutropha gobble up your stink and turn it into a balm for your body? He dumped a bucket of the stuff on himself. “I may be crazy,” he likes to say, “but I’m not stupid.”
Whitlock has not had a shower or used soap other than on his hands since. He relies on N eutropha misting.
It is no surprise that primates and remote human tribes have a 40 per cent more diverse skin microbiome than we soap freaks. However, acne, eczema and psoriasis are also practically unknown in hunter-gatherer humans, while in the west they are sharply on the rise. Why? Medics used to think we had to get rid of the bacteria causing skin conditions. Now they have begun to think about reintroducing the bacteria that prevent them. Dermatology journals are fizzing with early success stories.
Richard Gallo at the University of California found that eczema was triggered by a deficiency of a certain strain of bacteria. It was rectified when he dosed patients with a lotion containing boosted amounts of the live bacteria — a kind of skin-bacteria transplant. The same goes for acne: we all have acne bacteria on our skin and it is thought that spots flare due to a bacterial battle we little understand.
Acne, eczema and psoriasis are practically unknown in hunter-gatherer humans
Day three: it is not a smell that’s the problem, it’s the paranoia.
I don’t stink. One spray of the mist seems to convert my funk into a sort of rainy freshness. But I can’t trust this voodoo to keep working. It’s hard not to keep my arms pinned to my sides, like a 14-year-old in co-ed PE. I have a jog, a sweaty commute and an interview with Anne Robinson. We all know we can trust Anne to mention it. Her nose gets close as we say goodbye, but it doesn’t wrinkle a bit.
In the wild, humans would be bathing in muddy water, sitting in soil and enjoying daily inoculations of N eutropha. Whitlock devised a spray to replicate this. He called it Mother Dirt and founded a company, AO Biome, to set up clinical trials on the N eutropha spray.The trials are in phase two with regard to acne and high blood pressure. The spray’s efficacy must be proven before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves it as a medical treatment. The FDA had to create a category for the live topical.
Meanwhile, the spray is available as a cosmetic product. Mother Dirt is run by Jasmina Aganovic, a 30-year-old chemical engineer who trained at MIT. She says they shift tens of thousands of mist bottles a year in America and are about to launch it in the UK.
Most customers are aged from 25 to 35, and half, she estimates, are from the “Paleo” community, which tries to replicate ancestral lifestyles. Yet the other half, she says, are those so at their wits’ end with skin problems that they will try anything. “They’re confused. They’ve done everything they have been told. We seem to be cleaner than ever, yet have more problems than ever.”
There is much talk of the gut microbiome and how it affects obesity and immunity, but no one thinks much about skin, which also teems with bacteria. The same person who smugly eats yoghurt for her gut has probably slaughtered her skin microbiome 20 times before breakfast.
That’s the problem for Mother Dirt (slogan: “I used to be addicted to soap, I’m clean now”). Base-level hygiene for most westerners is kryptonite to N eutropha. Everyone from the company stresses that they wash their hands with soap to stop communicable disease. There is no medical need, however, to soap anywhere above the wrist. Yet we do. And soap kills N eutropha. So does sodium lauryl sulphate, a lathering ingredient in almost every shampoo and body wash, which is an antimicrobial.
Not only that, but almost every personal-care product, from foundation to moisturiser, contains preservatives. These are designed to stop bacterial growth. As for deodorant, Aganovic says they have never found a “biome-friendly” one. Put like that, my bathroom cabinet seems to be crammed with the cosmetic equivalent of junk food.
We should think about our skin biome as an unexplored rainforest. There is an utterly serious scientific endeavour called Belly Button Biodiversity in which scientists swabbed 500 navels and found 2,368 different bacterial species. It estimated that more than half were new to science. Each person had an average of 67 in their belly button. In that light, modern body care is nuking the rainforest: who knows what endangered bugs you are washing down the plughole?
Aganovic knew that 21st-century customers wouldn’t give it all up to roll in the dirt, so she has come up with an alternative cleanser and moisturiser that seems to be rosewater and coconut oil. It’s fine, but for the last three days of my ten-day experiment I up the ante: I stop showering or cleansing and rely on the mist alone. (Aganovic doesn’t recommend this; she showers and mists daily.)
It’s not the smell — it’s the paranoia
My grandmother used to say “horses sweat, men perspire, ladies gently glow”. Sorry, grandma, but I glow like a bloody horse. Yet without washing at all, my much-sampled body odour isn’t as rank as it would be otherwise. When I am overdue a misting, it’s more, reported my (very) good friend, like a “faint top note of chardonnay left in the sun”. One Mother Dirt user said her altered odour reminded her of a waft of “pleasant pot”. A few minutes after misting, my faint smell vanishes.
Aganovic says that about half of users find they can give up deodorant, as she does: they have no idea why people differ. For them odour is less the point than helping skin conditions. There is much continuing research into this, but only one small double-blind study has been finished; in it the N eutropha group said their skin felt better. The only independent studies of N eutropha are being conducted by Raja Sivamani, a professor of dermatology at the University of California. Sivamani asked one group of volunteers to spray Mother Dirt on their skin, while another group sprayed water, then he studied markers for inflammation. His data will not be ready to publish for a few months.
“We can see that N eutropha appears safe, but the jury is still out on how it works and what it does,” Sivamani said. “We did see a shift . . . Maybe some of the inflammatory agents were reduced, but those results were preliminary. This science is very early.”
Other scientists are being cautious too. I speak to Carsten Flohr, the head of research and development at St John’s Institute of Dermatology, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust in London. “It sounds nice, but they have a product to sell,” Flohr says. Yet he remains open-minded, especially when I tell him about my armpit miracle. “The fact that there is little evidence so far doesn’t mean it doesn’t do something.”
In fact, Flohr’s research is pushing at the horizon of this new field. There is good evidence that there is an important window in infancy for establishing a healthy gut microflora, and this may be the case be for the skin. Heed this, all you over-washers of children! He also has studied how irritating sodium lauryl sulphate can be for the skin. But, I say, I now know they are in almost every bathroom product. Should we be avoiding it? “Not everybody, but certainly those with eczema and dry skin.”
Hmm. I can only say that I liked this experiment. I felt fresh. The Mother Dirt bottle is expensive, so I won’t carry on, but I will try to be a better host to my bacteria. I knew I was converted when I was involved in a kid’s bath-time and some bubbles got on to my face. I dashed to towel them off like the soap was some deadly poison. Which to my new friend N eutropha, and God knows how many of his relatives that have come to stay at mine.
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There is actually no need to use this expensive stuff. Just stop washing with soap everything except your hands. Your body will acquire the necessary bacteria pretty quickly, especially if you also stop washing clothes unnecessarily and water-wastingly.
I haven't used soap for years, except for my hands, sometimes my feet (whose smell I like) - and then only soap made with olive oil and herbs. I probably smell of dog, as well as human, but that is an added bonus - and better than hamster.