The Corporeal Ecology behind the Germy Jeans…

If you’re in Canada, you’ve no doubt heard or seen the story of the University of Alberta student, Josh Le, who wore the same pair of jeans some 200 times over 15 months without washing them.  You can read it here:–student-wears-unwashed-jeans-for-15-months

The story has been picked up all over the world with almost all news agencies coming up with the same verdict:  it was a nice experiment but it isn’t something people should try at home.

But there is a real message here that is missing.  This study, for all it’s worth as a nice foil for the usual daily news, also is a great model for the concept of corporeal ecology.

We all know that bacteria grows on our bodies and without proper washing, the likelihood is that we’re going to eventually give off a less than pleasant odour.  We also know that the clothes we wear will eventually start to smell as the fabric becomes loaded with these bacteria and other odoriferous chemicals.  Our usual method of rectification is laundry; we wash our clothes, they get clean and we can wear them again.

But there is another way of ‘laundering’ without using a washing machine and soap. You just have to reduce the level of the germs naturally…

In this case, Josh Le used a very old fashioned and yet still viable technique:  cold. Whenever his jeans would start to smell, he’d throw them into the freezer and voilà!  The odour was gone.  You can do the same with your garbage in the wintertime.  If it’s below zero, take a nice, ripe, smelly garbage bag and throw it outside for a day or two.  You’ll notice that the smell will have dissipated.

Chemically speaking, the cold led to a reduction these malodorous chemicals to a level that was below the olfactory detection levels.  Moreover, the cold would have led to a reduction in the less hardy bacteria leaving behind only a small percentage that would survive the thawing and drying process. Most of these bugs would be spores and a few psychrophiles (bacteria that like the cold).  The microbes would then need a certain amount of warmth, moisture and nutrients (dead skin, spilled food, sebaceous secretions) to regrow to a level that would allow them to once again produce the levels of odor necessary to be detected. And when that would happen, back in the freezer the pants would go.

In essence, it’s a form of laundering without doing the laundry.

I should mention that Josh Le could have done even more to help by drying out his frozen jeans in the sun.  Bacteria are not particularly happy in direct sunlight and they have a hard time surviving the thriving after exposure.  As a result, warming the jeans inside out in the sun would be a perfect way to help keep those bacteria levels low.

Another interesting aspect to this study is the fact that it took some seven months before the jeans needed to be frozen.  That in itself is a fascinating aspect to the concept of corporeal ecology that none of the news agencies discussed.

Bacteria have a remarkable ability to change the way that they multiply.  In really good times, say on an agar plate with lots of sugars, amino acids and other organic nutrients, a bacterium can replicate every 20 minutes.  To put it one way, if you were to have an unlimited supply of nutrients, it would take only 48 hours for the entire world to be covered with a lawn of E. coli.  To put it another way, it would only take a day or so for necrotizing fasciitis – flesh eating bacteria – to cause a life threatening condition once it has reached the inner layers of the skin (which, not surprisingly, is the perfect supply of nutrients even with an immune response).

Thankfully, the level of nutrients in our everyday lives are nowhere near that plentiful and so bacteria require more time to reproduce.  This is especially the case in natural fibres like cotton and denim.  Studies have been done for decades showing that bacteria, viruses and fungi just don’t do well in these fabrics.  A more recent article was published last year in which they looked at the bacterial load of various textiles and found that natural fabrics tended to resist bacteria growth while synthetics apparently allowed growth not only from the body, but from the environment as well.

(On a side note, it would be interesting to see how long this experiment would last with those spandex pants from the 80s.  And before you ask, I already disposed of mine years ago so it won’t be me.  Perhaps the Mythbusters would like to tackle this one?)

Corporeal Ecology is about the individual in the environment and the environment in the individual.  This study shows that even without the technology of our modern world, one can still live relatively hygienically by simply following a few guidelines.

  1. Keep the body clean
  2. Wear natural fabrics
  3. Use the cold (freezing is best) and sunlight to reduce microbial load and odour
  4. Don’t keep worn clothes in dark, damp spaces

The last guideline should be a given as it’s a requisite to keep most perishables safe. However in this study, the rule was broken, quite by accident, with terrible consequences. Josh Le put those jeans in a nice warm, damp suitcase for 3 days, more than long enough for the bacteria to thrive and cause a stench that hit him like a hammer.  However, just like a corporeal ecology professional, he bagged them, froze them, allowed them to dry and sure enough, the stench was gone.

If you would like to share your corporeal ecology story or comment, I would very much enjoy hearing from you.

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8 Responses to The Corporeal Ecology behind the Germy Jeans…

  1. Pingback: fashion » Blog Archive » Could Germs Be All the Fashion? | The "Germ Guy" Blog: Confessions …

  2. Patricia says:

    Aunty Ira always said I would keep “Learning” NEW Things until the day I Die!!! She was “RIGHT” *******

  3. Liz Ditz says:

    Back in the neolithic (30 years ago) I did a lot of mountaineering in the California Sierras and the Cascades. I think our longest trip out was 45 days. This was before the era polypropylene fleece, so it was wool all the way — layers of wool, with perhaps a cotton tshirt & cotton shorts for the warmer days. The clothes got pretty smelly, as did the inside of the sleeping bags. Even airing things out in the sun only reduced, but not eliminated the odors. Snow baths were better in terms of feeling clean than the “navy” baths (Stand at least 15 feet away from the body of water. Wet body with a minimum of water. Lather with a bit of liquid castile soap–Dr. Bronner’s peppermint preferred. Rinse with as little water as possible.)

    Also back in them olden days, new jeans were as stiff as a board, even after the first wash. The best way to break them in was to wear them for days at a time. I think my longest was 10 days without washing.

  4. Patricia says:

    OH MY!!! What an “Interesting Experience” !!! I LOVE IT !!!

    Thanks for the “SMILE” *******

  5. Josh says:

    This is long overdue, but thanks for the mention and explanation, Jason! I always wanted to know the science behind the freezer method. In fact, I’m taking an intro Microbiology class at the UofA out of interest to learning more about microbes. Who knew microbes can be so much fun? :D

    • Hey man! Thanks for the comment. Microbiology can be quite a lot of fun…quite a few of us out here too! And I hope you’re enjoying the class! Don’t hesitate to give me a shout if you’re ever looking to ‘germify’ anything else. :)

  6. Pingback: Denim Therapy Blog » The DT Raw Denim Project Week 8:

  7. Pingback: Could Germs Be All the Fashion? | The "Germ Guy" Blog: Confessions of a Mercurial Microbiologist

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