Chemical engineer David Whitlock has made a splash in the media as of late, due to his lack of “splash”—as in the man hasn’t bathed in 12 years. The reason behind such a choice? David is working to defend the bacteria that live on his skin—as it does on ours—but Whitlock also believes it’s in our best interest to keep certain microscopic creatures healthy over other bugs. In fact, he’s started a company (AOBiome) that sells formulas of living bacteria advertised as a way to clean your skin without washing.

We recently checked in with David to get more of his thoughts concerning his company, a life of non-bathing, bacterial cleansing, and any potential aromas that might come into play along the way.

Chemical engineer David Whitlock, working on his “Mother Dirt” product line.

Your anti­-shower stance has made headlines. Did you ever think this would be of such interest to the media?

I didn’t know what to expect. I have many idiosyncratic interests, and I don’t much think about what other people think about them. I am not surprised that many people are interested. My hope is that they would be interested in trying to understand it the way that I understand it, and the positive health benefits that can be obtained, and see if it works for them, and not just interested as in the rubber necking that goes on when people pass a car or train wreck and can’t look away.

According to several sources, you haven’t showered for over 12 years…is this true?

Yes, this is correct. I have not showered or other ways bathed my whole body in more than 12 years. I wash my hands before food preparation and after using the facilities, and when they get dirty.

The reason you’ve given for not showering is that it can be damaging to the body’s microbiome—what part of the bathing is responsible for the harm?

There are multiple aspects of bathing that can harm the skin’s microbiome. Soap is an effective antimicrobial agent (for some bacteria). It disrupts the lipid membrane and kills many bacteria via that mechanism. Ammonia oxidizing bacteria are killed by this mechanism. Most cleansing products also have preservatives which also kill bacteria (and which can linger on the skin after rinsing, for example, triclosan). Also, plain water will mechanically remove a portion of the biofilm. It is likely that AOB are removed by this mechanism, and because they are slow growing, it would take a long time for them to grow back.

What if one were just to use water without soap? Is the water we drink/ bathe in also dangerous to anything beneficial living on our skin?

Plain water is not so much “dangerous,” but even plain water does remove some of what is there. You can only get positive results if they are present, so trying to maintain their presence is helpful.

Not trying to be comedic, but it should be asked: Does swimming in a chlorinated pool also harm a healthy microbiome? How about untreated waters, like the ocean or a lake—any threat there?

“Threat” is not the right term. Anything that removes or kills AOB on the skin will prevent positive health effects from AOB on the skin.

Please describe what (in your opinion) goes into a healthy spread of outer body bacteria, and are there ways to maintain such a culture aside from bathing habits, such as diet, exposure to the sun, clothing types, etc?

Our ancestors evolved without clothing, living in a tropical climate, without bathing or use of modern hygiene products. So presumably, that is the “best” way to maintain an ancestral­-type skin microbiome.

You are a co­founder of the microbiome startup company AOBiome. Can you describe what AOBiome is all about?

We are about trying to provide ways for people to restore a more normal skin microbiome by supplying the keystone species type, ammonia oxidizing bacteria, AOBs.

Were you inspired to launch AOBiome because of your shower­free experimentation, or did one concept come with the other…?

When I started my “science experiment” of not bathing, I didn’t know what would happen. I was prepared to stop my experiment if anything bad did happen. I may be crazy, but I am not stupid. I knew that AOBs can’t cause an infection because they can’t metabolize human skin components other than ammonia, they don’t excrete any toxins, have never been associated with any infection in any organism, are common in the environment, and because they are slow growing (doubling time of 10 hours compared to 20 minutes for pathogens), any infection would have a time constant of months instead of days.

I saw positive results that led me to look at the literature of the physiology behind those symptoms, and found that many of the positive results were consistent with the affected pathways being adversely affected by low ­nitric oxide before the recolonization of my skin with AOB. My hypothesis that AOB are restoring a more normal background level of nitric oxide species seems to fit all of my observations and also all of the data in the literature. As I shared my observations and ideas with friends, and also shared my “home brew” probiotic, many of them experienced positive effects too. These friends are the ones who helped me start AOBiome.

Please tell us about Mother Dirt AO+ Mist. This is a product of your creation, yes? What does it do exactly?

It restores a more normal skin microbiome by restoring keystone organisms, ammonia oxidizing bacteria.

Are there other Mother Dirt products that do something similar?

The other Mother Dirt products are biome friendly cleansers. They don’t contain preservatives or chemicals that are toxic to AOB, so they can be used and have fewer adverse effects on a healthy microbiome.

Finally, the question that must be asked…and only because it’s the 800 ­pound gorilla in the room: Does anyone remark that, knowing you don’t shower, that your personal “scent” is not perhaps to everyone’s liking—one would imagine that this could be the case….and does AO+Mist have a notable fragrance?

No one has remarked on my odor before they knew of my bathing status. After being informed, many people still do not believe it, and are unable to find an adverse odor.

Photos via Mark Drury | Mother Dirt