The Red Bulletin presents Game Changers. The people, things and ideas that will change our lives in 2016.
It takes 16,000 litres of shower and bathwater, several kilos of soap and anywhere between three and six bottles of shampoo and shower gel to keep the average European adult clean for a year. Or so we think. According to chemical engineer David Whitlock, who trained at the esteemed and credible institution known as MIT, such excess isn’t necessary. Whitlock and his start-up, AOBiome, have developed a spray that he says will make showering redundant. Whitlock readily admits that he last took a shower at some point in the late ’90s. Since then, he has let something else do the cleaning: the legions of bacteria that live on his skin.
The star of the spray can is Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidising bacterium that normally lives in the soil beneath our feet. Each of these rod- or pear-shaped bacteria is typically two micrometres long, meaning 500 of them laid end to end would measure just 1mm in length. Whitlock says you should use the bacterial spray twice a day. Billions of these little bacteria then settle on the skin and start working wonders.
As Whitlock explains, before people began to shower on an almost daily basis and wash their hands with soap at every opportunity, these cleansing bacteria would have felt right at home on our skin. They would also have brought about cleanliness in a natural way by eroding our sweat. What we see as hygiene and cleanliness today has no doubt curbed many severe, infectious diseases over the last two centuries. Yet, according to Whitlock, excessive hygiene also brings allergies and opens the door to other pathogens which, in the past, would have been fended off by friendly bacteria such as the ‘nitro’. Whitlock has demonstrated that the presence of ammonia-oxidising bacteria on the skin curbs inflammation and irritation, and strengthens the immune system.
An adult human carries around approximately one hundred trillion good bacteria, which can weigh up to 2kg in total. Most live in our intestines where they do indispensable digestive work, and we all now know that we can support these invisible friends of ours by eating foods such as probiotic yoghurt.
Whitlock is convinced that our skin bacteria will soon experience the same steep rise in popularity with the general public as their intestinal cousins. His spray, which retails under the name Mother Dirt, should give us the same healthy skin microbiome our unwashed ancestors had. Dirty is the new clean.