Science Nonfiction in Review: Clean

November 22, 2020 Uncategorized 10 ★★★★

Science Nonfiction in Review: CleanTitle: Clean: The New Science of Skin
Author: James Hamblin
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: I enjoyed this approachable, personable, nuanced look at the science of skin care.

“Keeping skin healthy is a booming industry, and yet it seems like almost no one agrees on what actually works. Confusing messages from health authorities and ineffective treatments have left many people desperate for reliable solutions. An enormous alternative industry is filling the void, selling products that are often of questionable safety and totally unknown effectiveness. In Clean, doctor and journalist James Hamblin explores how we got here, examining the science and culture of how we care for our skin today.” (source)

This book wasn’t quite what I expected. While that can sometimes significantly diminish my enjoyment of a book, in this case, the book was simply good in a different way. I anticipated something with a hint of stunt memoir, having heard about James Hamblin’s experiment with not showering in his Atlantic articles. I also was hoping for some prescriptive conclusions with clear guidelines delineating the best hygiene routine. Instead, this book was more an exploration of the cultural significance of what we consider proper hygiene. This was mixed with some anecdotes and preliminary research results on how cleaning impacts our skin microbiome and our health.

While this book only touched on the author’s non-showering experiment in passing, I got the personal narrative I wanted through the author’s descriptions of his visits to research labs, industry conferences, and skincare facilities. I enjoy when authors take us along on their journey learning about a topic. Mary Roach is one of my favorite examples of this technique. It makes the stories the author is telling feel more immediate and personal. It also gives the reader an opportunity to hear about the people behind different research or cleaning products.

Although the book was also missing a conclusion about the one ideal hygiene routine,  I think that’s actually a point in its favor. While their does seem to be a growing consensus that we can and perhaps should all do less (fewer showers and less soap when take them), its clear that the science isn’t there yet to support ideal recommendations. I expect these recommendations might also differ from person to person. So, while I would have loved more specific conclusions, I appreciate Hamblin’s ability to explain the science clearly, with nuance and without exaggeration. It was exciting to learn about all that we know and all that we have yet to find out.


10 Responses to “Science Nonfiction in Review: Clean”

  1. Briana @ Pages Unbound

    This sounds really interesting, though I think I too would be hoping for some clear-cut recommendation of what I should be doing by the end! (Also it’s really interesting/frustrating to read books like these and realize science really knows very little. I read a book about sleep once, and my main takeaway was really we know nothing about sleep, how it works, and how to fix sleep problems.)
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    • DoingDewey

      Yes, it’s so true! I appreciate when an author doesn’t exaggerate what we know, but it sometimes amazing how poorly we understand things that appear so simple.

  2. Stephen @ ReadingFreely

    Did the book have much in the way of useful advice? This is on my science TBR for next year as a sciency-health book. I’m not one concerned about skin, but I’m interested in learning about what can be done that’s grounded in facts and not folklore.

    • DoingDewey

      Not as much advice as I hoped, honestly! Pretty much just that we can all probably shower less and just soap our sweatiest bits. Other than that, I mostly learned about how much we don’t yet know about our microbiome and how that works.

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