It is such cosmetic and aesthetic effects that most of us associate with the use of soap. We consider that one of the most striking differences between modern men and the best of the ancients is our enormous employment of this cleanser. We are told that the average American consumes about twenty-five pounds a year.
I wonder if its tremendous value in medicine is fully appreciated. Forty years ago my famous professor of hygiene said that soap and water is the best antiseptic. That is now well understood by modern medical men, even though there are some bacteria that soap solutions do not kill promptly. Bacteria removed from the body are just as harmless as though they were killed in situ. To build up the evidence I will quote from a recent book on soap, edited by Dr. Morris Fishbein: “No other single article can compare with soap in regard to the amount of sickness and death prevented by its use. Epidemics rage where soap and water are little used for personal and domestic purposes.” Two centuries ago Dr. Samuel Johnson said that if he were to keep a seraglio, he would keep his women in cotton rather than silks, as cotton showed its own nastiness. By inference he suggested that cotton was amenable to cleaning by soap. Over a century later physicians and hospitals realized the significance of this remark made by a doctor of laws, and clean cotton is now an essential with them.
It is strange to find that many people do not know how to use soap efficiently. Here is the proper recipe. Thick suds should be formed and rubbed in thoroughly for a considerable period, allowing the dirt to be softened and freed from the skin. If there is much dirt or extreme cleanliness is desired, the process may be repeated, but the suds should never be washed away quickly before they have done their work. Mother’s old washerwoman on Cape Cod, after looking at the black roller towel, would say, “You boys had a dirty wash and a clean wipe.”
Within the lifetime of those who are now becoming grandparents the bathtub with running hot and cold water has become the very hallmark of the American. In my country village I think my mother, put in nearly the first one. Before that the Saturday night bath was an institution. A big fire was kept going in the kitchen range, the wooden clothes tub was brought in, and the family took turns.
Nowadays people are rather diffident about admitting that they don’t have a daily bath. This is an exaggerated attitude. In fact there are a fair number of people with a tendency to dry skin who just cannot take it. Hot water and soap remove the normal fat, provided by the glands of the skin, to such an extent that they chap, itch, and are exceedingly uncomfortable. Even normally greasy people can get along with a moderate amount of soap and water.
Recently I was at an isolated skiing club where trouble with the water supply allowed no baths for four days. I do not think that we smelt strong and we were comfortable. Right here I must forestall cynical remarks by stating that I get well over three hundred and sixty-five baths a year myself.
Also remember that although soap is of great medicinal value, “medicinal soaps” are not worth while. Soap is soap and does its work by cleansing and not by the chemicals that are put in it. If you want a nice smelling soap with perfume, pay the price and have it, but understand that the well-known, inexpensive, mild American brands are as good as money can buy.