Does Mother Dirt Know Best?
David Whitlock is the founder of AOBiome, a biotech company researching the benefits of introducing good bacteria into the cosmetic routines of everyday people. He’s also earned quite a reputation in the press recently as the chemist who hasn’t showered in over twelve years. Whitlock says that he doesn’t need to shower because he has restored his skin biome – the microscopic ecosystem living on his body – back to a more natural state using products he developed. The good bacteria living on his skin keep it smooth, soft, and odor-free by eliminating harmful chemicals in sweat. Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, for instance, digest the chemical in sweat that gives off odor.
Whitlock founded AOBiome in 2013, inspired by a conversation about horses and dirt. Some years ago, as the story goes, Whitlock’s date asked him why her horse rolled around in dirt all day. The scientist found that the horse was after beneficial bacteria found in the dirt. AOBiome has since harnessed these helpful microorganisms in a series of cosmetic products under the brand Mother Dirt. The cosmetics promote good bacteria populations rather than killing them like common soaps. The products currently available include the original AO+ Mist body spray, a shampoo substitute, and a cleanser substitute.
I had the chance to ask David Whitlock about his career, his current status in the media, and what impact he believes the Mother Dirt products can have. Here are highlights of our conversation:
How do you feel about your new status as the Mother Dirt spokesman and poster child for anti-shower lifestyles?
I don’t like publicity. I do this because it is important, not because I enjoy being the center of attention.
Would you call AO Biome your life’s work?
Not really. It is the most important idea I have had (so far), and the idea of mine that will have the most impact on the welfare of humanity (so far). I was working on climate change mitigation which I dropped because commercializing these bacteria is more important. I see these bacteria as an important aspect of how humans regulate “stress” and mitigate the adverse effects of stress, including the effects of fear, greed, anxiety and insecurity. Those are the feelings that [anthropogenic climate change] denialists are using to thwart effective action at reducing fossil fuel use and mitigating climate change effects.
What would you say to people who are curious about Mother Dirt products but have apprehensions about using them?
These are very likely the safest bacteria that you could put on your skin. They have no traits that facilitate virulence and infection. They don’t produce toxins, they are unable to derive energy from organic compounds. They are unable to degrade human tissues, or to derive energy from that degradation if they did so. They derive energy solely from the oxidation of ammonia into nitrite. When disease causing bacteria degrade proteins, they release ammonia. With AOB present, that ammonia is converted to nitrite. At the pH of the skin, nitrite is a good antimicrobial agent.
Going further into the science behind the products and the individual benefits they can provide, AOBiome’s chief medical officer, Larry Weiss, was able to provide me some clarity. Below are conversation highlights:
How important is having a healthy skin microbiome to having healthy skin?
The current evidence strongly supports the role of the microbiome in modulating the inflammatory response on the skin and in the gut. Any imbalance of the microbiome, or dysbiosis can set up the conditions for inflammation. Most of the soaps, cleansers, lotions, cosmetics, and shampoo that we use today contains antimicrobial preservatives and other ingredients that are toxic to AOB, an ancestral peacekeeper species that is an essential source of Nitric Oxide, an important immunoregulatory molecule.
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What are the other health benefits that come with a healthy skin biome?
In addition to preventing the acute inflammation that may accompany diseases such as acne, eczema, and rosacea, a healthy skin microbiome will reduce the low level, subclinical inflammation and tissue damage can contribute to the appearance of wrinkles and aging.
Is the public misinformed about bacteria and misguided by the notion that sterile equals clean?
Sterility is literally the absence of life. There is nothing healthy about sterility in our homes or on our skin, if it were even possible to achieve. The combined effect of the public fear of epidemic illness and the old germ theory has informed the widespread belief that we are at war with the microbial world and need to strive for sterility. One consequence of the belief is the overuse of toxic antimicrobial chemicals in consumer products to engage in a literal chemical warfare against germs. There is little doubt that the subacute chronic exposure to these potent and persistent antimicrobial chemicals causes more harm than good.
In a 2007 study conducted by Chris Lowry at the University of Bristol, England, they showed that mice exposed to mycobacterium coped better in stressful situations and determined that the same bacteria, which are found in dirt, could improve quality of life. Is this concept similar to the idea behind Mother Dirt products?
Dr. Lowry’s work is an excellent example of the potential and importance of the microbiota in our health. All life emerged from, is surrounded by, immersed in, and intimately interrelated to the microbiota. Many of these relationships are ancient and have been optimized over millions of years of evolution. For the past 150 or more years we have been applying and consuming a vast library of chemicals that we barely understand to these ancient and complex ecosystems of microbiota on our skin and in our gut. This has dramatically accelerated over the past 50 years. We now live in an age of inflammatory and hypersensitivity disorders.
The press has highlighted the fact that David Whitlock, AO Biome’s founder, hasn’t showered in over a decade but cutting out showers isn’t necessary to benefit from the Mother Dirt products. Can you explain how showering fits into the Mother Dirt routine and how it could be beneficial for individuals and populations to cut back on showers with help from your products?
There is some confusion about the role of showering with the use of our Mother Dirt products. Dr. Whitlock’s decision to forego showering is a personal one and not necessary or recommended for the users of Mother Dirt. This is very different from the decision to use soaps and skin products that contain chemicals that are toxic to bacteria in your skin microbiome. In our study, showering with water only is compatible with our bacteria or with our “Biome Friendly” cleanser and shampoo that don’t contain chemicals or preservatives that may be toxic to AOB.
Be kind to everyone, do no harm, do well by doing good; keep your microbiome healthy; eat food, not too much, mostly plants; get the right amount of sleep, exercise, rest, work, play, fun.
I was able to try all of the products Mother Dirt currently offers: the AO+ Mist, the shampoo, and the cleanser. While testing these out, I initially dropped all other products from my beauty routine except for hair conditioner. The tossed items included a facial cleanser, body and face moisturizers, and deodorant – all of which were natural products with no preservatives to begin with. I also cut back on showers, taking one every other day unless I went to the gym multiple days in a row.
My experience on the first day of use in particular was exceptionally positive. I felt like my skin was alive, vibrant and active. I felt clean, I smelled like nothing – like skin. Even with sweat I experienced no body odor and was extremely satisfied and impressed. However, by the third day, I experienced blemishes and unusual body odor which arose directly after applying the mist. Despite the fact that the obvious benefits were dwindling, I continued the routine for ten days without any products from my old repertoire. Eventually, I came up with a system that balanced my old cosmetics with the new Mother Dirt items.
Over the course of the trial, I used the Mother Dirt shampoo about twice a week. Generally I don’t shampoo my hair and didn’t intend to increase shampoo frequency during the trial. Yet, the shampoo was gentle on my hair and I never felt the need to use very much, as with normal shampoo. For the most part, I only shampooed after using light hair product which I also seldom do. My verdict is that, since the product expires after four weeks after first use, avoid purchasing it unless you shampoo once a day or more. Half of my bottle was left unused and wasted after 4 weeks.
The Mother Dirt cleanser is an excellent product. I used it every time I showered on key parts of my body including underarms, groin, backside, and feet. It is nice that none of the products have a scent but give all of the sensations of cleanliness. I almost used the entire cleanser at the four week mark.
I consider the Mother Dirt AO+ Mist to be the product with the most potential. It is also the most complex. I wasn’t ever quite sure how effectively I was applying it or whether the amount I sprayed was enough, especially since results were inconsistent over the trial period. When I first used it, I completely cut out all other beauty products from my routine. My skin was vibrant, hydrated, and I didn’t stink at all. Yet after only a few days, blemishes, dry spots and body odor started creeping up. After ten days the realities of life won and I integrated a moderate version of my former routine in with the Mother Dirt products. I was able to achieve balance this way but I was left with more questions about the spray at the end of my trial than I had when I started. What factors influenced the successes and failures of the product? Was it me, the product itself, or a combination of the two?
For the casual consumer, Mother Dirt’s effectiveness is hard to pinpoint. After all, the concept is based on the presence of microscopic bacteria populations that most people can’t measure. My personal takeaway is to spend more time with the products so that you can understand how they work on your body. Like many alternative health trends, Mother Dirt seems promising but there’s no guarantee. For those who can afford to experiment, it’s worth giving it a shot.
Mother Dirt may seem like just another addition to the list of consumer goods that promise to make our lives better so I asked David Whitlock what other lifestyle and beauty habits he stands by. I expected him to list items and practices like yoga and turmeric juice but his answer was charmingly simple, “Be kind to everyone, do no harm, do well by doing good; keep your microbiome healthy; eat food, not too much, mostly plants; get the right amount of sleep, exercise, rest, work, play, fun.” Even without Mother Dirt, this sounds like a pretty decent philosophy to live by.