Mr. Never Shower

Chances are, you’ve bathed at least four times in the last week — and if you’re in the United States, you’ve done so daily, give or take. Showering habits differ by country and region — Americans tend to do so daily, and, according to the Atlantic, “Americans attested to showering more frequently than the Chinese, Brits, and Japanese, where respondents said they take about five showers per week, but not nearly as often as people in Brazil and Colombia, where people seemingly sometimes take more than one shower per day.” 

But in any event, you’ve probably showered recently, and often.

Which makes you very different than David Whitlock. As of 2019, he hadn’t taken a bath or a shower in over 15 years. And, apparently, he doesn’t smell.

Whitlock, a chemist, got his start as a never-showerer in 2003 or so when he was on a date with his future girlfriend. She — connecting with his science background — asked him what she probably thought was an innocent question: why do horses roll around in the dirt? Humans tend to avoid doing that; do horses know something we don’t?

Whitlock didn’t know, but being a scientist, he investigated. And, as Vice reported, “Whitlock found out that horses rub living bacteria into their skin to protect the flora living there.” Or, in other words, horses don’t shower, but instead, they developed a way to keep the good bacteria on their skin — by getting dirty. Whitlock postulated that this could work for humans, too, so he started to “collect the bacteria from the soil of barns, pigsties, and chicken coops,” as NPR reported. There’s obviously a lot of stuff in there you don’t want to touch, but Whitlock was able to separate out the good bacteria from the bad. Then, per Vice, he “gathered some of these good bacteria, which neutralize dangerous organisms and hazardous substances on the skin, and made them into a spray that he’s been using since for his daily hygiene.” If parts of his body get dirty, sure, he’ll rinse that part off, but that’s only as needed. Whitlock doesn’t take baths or showers; he just spritzes himself with this bacterial mix — twice a day, plus whenever he washes his hands.

For Whitlock, his ongoing experiment — which few have replicated and no one has formally studied — is truly focused on the microbiome of our skin. Per the Guardian, “Although Whitlock appreciated gaining an extra 15 minutes a day from soap-dodging, his primary motivation was to encourage friendly microbes to live on him in symbiotic harmony. The bacteria get to feast on the ammonia from his sweat and he gets low-maintenance, balanced skin.” The bacteria, according to Vice, “breaks down ammonia: the compound that makes human sweat stink in the first place,” so Whitlock claims he doesn’t smell. (In the Vice interview, the publication explicitly asked him “has anyone ever told you that you stink” and he said no, but maybe people were just being polite, so who knows.)

In 2013, Whitlock turned his non-showering into a career — he founded a company called AOBiome, which now manufactures his ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) spray under the Mother Dirt brand (and yes, you can buy it) and is investing in other ways AOB can potentially impact our health, hopefully for the better. And if you want to give his spray a try but don’t want to stop showering, he has good news for you — you don’t have to. As he told Vice, “in order to enjoy the benefits of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, you don’t have to stop showering. You just have to use the spray after drying off after a shower to restore balance to your skin flora.”

Bonus fact: There is one group of people who may benefit from Whitlock’s products (assuming it works): those who are affected by a condition called “aquagenic urticaria.” Effectively, they’re allergic to water — as Wikipedia summarizes, if you have it, “hives develop on the skin after contact with water, regardless of its temperature,” and “in severe cases, drinking water can result in swelling of the oral cavity, swelling of the throat, and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis.” The condition is, unfortunately, untreatable at this point; the few people who have aquagenic urticaria are typically told to try to avoid getting wet.

From the Archives: Inside the Button: A microbiome story.