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The Real Reasons Why We Groom

When it comes to grooming, we really do it all. We do a multitude of things for our hair alone. We color it, pluck it, even wax it all off. We buff our skin by exfoliating, we cover it in mud to extract impurities, and slather on lotions and potions to keep it soft and supple. There are more basic elements to grooming as well—for example, we shower or bath to clean our bodies and our hair.

These are just some of the things we do all in the name of...what, exactly? Beauty? Maybe. But what if these impulses, driving us to groom ourselves endlessly, are not because we're an ego-centric species obsessed with an ill-conceived notion of beauty? If other species engage in similar behaviors, could there be a practical and deeper biological explanation for some of the grooming practices we see in humans?

Let’s begin with cockroaches, humans, and exfoliation.

When asked by a beauty store salesclerk if I exfoliated, I replied, “What is that?” Unlike yours truly, though, the Egyptians and Greeks were at the forefront of grooming trends, including this one. As for the clerk, her horror at my ignorance was genuine, and she felt compelled to expound on the benefits of buffing from head to toe. I was dubious at first, but then thought that perhaps the benefits were not so questionable.

Mitchell's cockroach (aka Mardi gras cockroach) PC: Ben Parkhurst

This is where cockroaches come into the picture. Like many insects, cockroaches meticulously scrub their antennae. By restricting the grooming behavior of cockroaches, researchers were able to examine what busy cockroaches are fastidiously trying to remove. They discovered that cockroaches rapidly developed a buildup of natural secretions and environmental chemicals that coated and clogged their antennae. Because antennae are used to smell, those cockroaches with dirt buildup were less able to smell their surroundings. This was also true for flies and ants. Another cool fact about cockroaches? One of the dangers for cockroaches is becoming zombie food for wasps. But the agile cockroach has one special trick up its sleeve to avoid being zombified...a karate kick. It happens so fast you can only see it in slow motion (check it out here). It works 63% of the time so not bad odds if the zombies come for you. As for us, exfoliation does indeed unclog pores and helps remove dead layers of skin. Who knows, maybe it enhances our ability to smell our environment as well—scientists recently discovered that our skin is alive with olfactory receptors. That means we can smell with our skin…and if our skin is clogged, perhaps, like cockroaches, our sense of olfaction is diminished.

Now let’s contemplate body hair: Relative to our primate cousins, we are virtually hairless. How is it that we came to lose so much of our body hair? One hypothesis is that we lost most of it as a way to control our body temperature. That may be true, but there is an added benefit: Parasite reduction. Relative to our hairy primate friends we have few ectoparasites. Indeed, it's a trend among hairless animals- an absence of parasites that like to hang out in hair.

Naked mole Rat, PC: Meghan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo

The naked mole rat, or sand puppy as they're affectionately called, is a prime example. Living in underground cities, these burrowing rodents don’t need hair to keep warm. Their tunnels and close cuddling accomplish that nicely. An added bonus is that they don't have external parasites like fleas and lice. Shaving, waxing, and laser hair removal are all tools at our disposal for accomplishing the same thing, and this is far from a recent development. Egyptians may have had better tools and techniques, but even cave people scraped hair from their face and head. The Egyptians used a process similar to waxing called sugaring, in which even the hair from the head and nether regions was removed.

The benefit? Controlling lice. Trends have come and gone with respect to body hair, but the benefit remains unchanged. (If I could be a hairless naked mole rat—save for my head, eyebrows, and eyelashes, of course—I would be a happy camper. Wax on, wax off.)

Elephants taking a mud bath in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. PC: Mgiganteus 2007 CC BY 3.0

And what about our fancy mud baths? Elephants do it. So do birds, and even the hippopotamus. In these and many other species, dust or mud bathing has several potential advantages: It may help with thermoregulation, sunscreen, and the removal of external parasites, and prevent dehydration of the skin. Modern spas advertise that mud treatments detoxifyyour skin. But many indigenous human cultures used mud, or some version of it, way before the fancy spas came along.

A prime example are the Himba, a tribe native to Namibia, whose people are famous for covering themselves with otjize paste, a cosmetic mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment. Because of a scarcity of water, they use otjize paste to clean their skin, protect it from their extremely hot and dry climate, and protect themselves against mosquito bites. Not surprisingly, as with many hygiene regimens started for practical purposes, the red-tinge given to the skin and hair has become a symbol of ideal beauty for the Himba. 

I don’t know about you, but now that I am aware that many human grooming practices are not rooted in vanity, but rather have real-world, biological benefits, I will gladly pluck, wax, exfoliate, and maybe even make some of my own otjize paste in place of the chemical-ridden stuff we call sunscreen—all in an effort to stop and smell the roses with my skin, keep parasites at bay, and protect myself from sunburn and mosquitos. If in the end I end up "beautiful," well that will just be icing on the cake.

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