At first glance, a silly question. Have you ever questioned your showering practices?
A shower is taken for granted, a daily or near-daily practice that begins or ends our days. It can be soothing, warm, and pleasurable, or a minor annoyance that must be worked into a busy schedule.
The practice of bathing has a long history. Ancient Rome was famous for its baths, or thermae, which played a culturally significant role as community centres focused around the act of bathing. Bathing has long been a communal act in many societies, and still is today in many places, such as in Morocco, where public hammams are visited once weekly by men, women, and children.
In the Western world, showering or bathing daily is typically the accepted practice. The daily shower is associated with modernity, simply because we live in a modern society (whatever that means) and showering daily is what we do. However, understanding that bathing practices are socially influenced brings about the question – health-wise, is the daily shower necessary? Put simply, the answer is no.
Showering gets rid of the good bacteria
Showering increases the amount of skin bacteria dispersed into the air (1-2). Icky-factor aside, this actually doesn’t make a difference to your personal risk of infection (3). But, it does mean that good bacteria, which are naturally present on your skin and are important for health immune function, are stripped away. They will come back, but there’s no need to get rid of them on a daily basis.
Showering dries out your skin and hair
It depends partly on the climate you live in and whether you naturally have dry or oily skin, but soaps and shampoos strip away natural, healthy skin oils. Over time, especially in a dry climate, this can lead to irritated and cracked dry skin. Lotion helps, as applying it your skin reduces the shedding of skin scales and bacteria post-shower (2).
Showering uses a ton of water
It is a luxury to have a hot shower every day. An American taking a 5-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses in an entire day (4). While rich people using less water won’t help poor people get the water they need, it is important to respect this resource. Be aware of your consumption. Environmentally, this is also important.
Chemical by-products from soaps get into the water system
Detergents like soaps and shampoos are bad for freshwater systems. They are poisonous to fish, as they damage their mucus membranes and gills (5). While fertilizers and pesticides are the worst pollutants, detergents also pollute the Canadian and American Great Lakes (6). Microbeads from body scrubs and face washes also pollute waterways because they don’t break down (7).
Of course, there are important reasons to shower. Sanitation is a cornerstone of human development. Regular bathing is essential to health. Psychologically, a shower is really nice. Once every two or three days though is plenty.
- Speers R, Bernard H, O’Grady F, Shooter RA. Increased dispersal of skin bacteria into the air after shower-baths. Lancet 1965;1:478-83.
- Hall GS, Mackintosh CA, Hoffman PN. The dispersal of bacteria and skin scales from the body after showering and after application of a skin lotion. Journal of Hygiene (Cambridge) 1986;97;289-98.
- Larson E. Hygiene of the skin: when is clean too clean? Emerging Infectious Diseases 2001;7(2):225-30.
- Watkins K. Human development report 2006, beyond scarcity: power, poverty, and the global water crisis. United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 2006.
- Abel PD. Toxicity of synthetic detergents to fish and aquatic invertebrates. Journal of Fish Biology 1974;6(3):279-98.
- Bennett ER, Metcalfe CD. Distribution of alkylphenol compounds in great lakes sediments, United States and Canada. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 1998;17(7):1230-5.
- Eriksen M, Mason S, Wilson S, Box C, Zellars A, Edwards W, et al. Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2013;77(1-2):177-82.
Image source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain.