Showering is Overrated

by egndukwe on October 10, 2012

Image courtesy of africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When’s the last time you showered? A few hours ago? A few days ago? A few…weeks ago? Be honest, this is a safe space. And if your last shower falls into the latter categories, rest assured that you’re not the only one. In fact, a new wave of individuals are becoming vocal about their decision to skip a daily shower. Instead they use freshening tricks, like swabbing a slice of lemon under the arm, or using baby wipes in unmentionable areas. Individuals who abide by these relaxed standards of cleanliness insist they’re not hippies, they’re not revolutionaries, they just don’t need to shower every day. And they might be onto something.

 

There’s bacteria on your skin…and that’s a good thing.

Most often when we think about our skin, we think of the harmful elements that our skin protects us from. We don’t often consider the fact that there is life on our skin. The “skin microbiome” refers to the trillions of microorganisms having a party on our skin at this very moment. The number of microorganisms in the human body is so plentiful that they outnumber human cells 10 to 1 and make up approximately 1-3% of the body’s mass. For a 150-pound person that’s 1.5-4.5 pounds.

Many of these microorganisms are bacteria that are typically not harmful to us, and in fact many provide a benefit. And our skin isn’t covered in just one type of bacteria. There’s an estimated 1,000 species of bacteria living on our bodies. Even more interesting is that specific parts of our bodies have very specific types of bacteria. In fact, the bacteria on the outside of your elbow, is different from the bacteria on the inside of your elbow. And each area appears to be finely tuned to its own purpose. For example, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine compared the vaginal microbiomes of pregnant women, to those of non pregnant women and found that the diversity in micrbiomes decreased dramatically leading up to pregnancy. This change likely occurs to ease the transition of a newborn from the womb.

Bacteria
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Does the good outweigh the bad?

Common thought is that frequent showering leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness and healthiness go hand in hand. However, the true effectiveness of personal hygiene in preventing infection is up for debate. Often, interventions aimed at reducing infection have focused on several different aspects, including education, improving water quality and waste disposal–so it’s hard to pinpoint which element caused the reduction. In terms of the harm, previous studies suggest that showering could disrupt the balance of microorganisms on the skin, disbanding them into the air and surrounding cells. The important question then, is whether this disruption can be harmful. Dr. Julia Segre, who lead the Human Microbiome Project, thinks it could be,

…When we think about what promotes health and what causes disease, we have to consider that it could be the bacteria and the fungi and the other microorganisms that live together with us — that they could be out of balance.

For example, the cause of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis is largely unknown. But there’s a chance that our actions, including hygiene and antibiotic consumption, may disrupt the delicate balance maintained by the bacterial ecosystem that inhabits our skin.

Beyond the disruption to the skin microbiome, daily showers may also damage the outermost protective layer of the skin, which is made up of dead skin cells held together by lipids. Hot water and soap work to dissolve the lipids and the use of a scrubbing device (think loofah) can damage the outer layer of your skin revealing the more delicate layer beneath it. Frequent repetition of this process, without giving the skin enough time to rebuild and reproduce natural oils before being stripped again, can eventually lead to dry, cracked skin.

So should I stop showering?

No, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to skip a few showers a week, especially if you’re not working up a considerable sweat during the day. And when you do shower, shorter, cooler showers with mild soaps should do the job just fine. Just a gentle suggestion though, don’t start off your next date with the fact that you don’t shower–chances are they won’t understand.

 

 

Andrew Maynard October 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Of course an added advantage (from where I’m sitting at the moment) is that you may also see a significant reduction in meeting requests and general foot traffic through your office, allowing more time for doing interesting stuff :-)

Great piece – I did wonder though whether the 10:1 ratio between microbes and cells is for the whole body, not just the outer skin

egndukwe October 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Great point, I’ll be sure to clarify the ratio in the post. And now we know your secret to avoiding student meetings!

Dan Kegel October 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I once had a housemate who never bathed. He answered an ad I placed to
share a flat, and I accepted him without meeting him personally because
he was coming from France to work in a non-profit near where I lived.

When he showed up, he looked like he hadn’t showered in a week, and I assumed
it was just because of the long flight. I became alarmed after a couple of days
when it became apparent that this was just the way he was.
The smell was so strong, our cats started peeing on the couch any time he sat on it.
We had to steam-clean our furniture after he left.

I confronted him once, asking him if he used deodorant. He said yes.
I asked him what brand. He couldn’t answer.

So, if you decide to stop showering, please, for goodness’ sake, ask people if
they can tell. And if they can, GO TAKE A SHOWER AND USE DEODORANT.

egndukwe October 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Such an unfortunate experience! There’s definitely a balance to be found between showering too much, and not doing it nearly enough…and it sounds like your roommate fell into the latter category.

Adrian Morgan October 10, 2012 at 7:49 pm

The blog post assumes that showering every day is the cultural norm, and the NYT article begins: “A daily shower is a deeply ingrained American habit”.

I’m wondering just how American that is. Would someone who showers once every two days be considered an outlier over there? How about other comparable countries? Because here in Australia, that’s what I do — not because I’m part of some new wave, but because that’s what I was raised to do. It is considered unremarkable. Of course, people whose lifestyles involve a lot of manual labour will typically shower more often.

Liz October 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm

As far as American norms go, I am a once every other day showering person. I do this because my skin hates me (gets dry and starts peeling) if I wash it too much. My friends tease me about it. Americans are very concerned with everything anti-germ related. We don’t generally eat food left out overnight (even covered), we have stigmas about sitting or standing next to people in public transportation for fear of spreading germs, or being creepy. I hear it’s a bit weird compared to other countries.

egndukwe October 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Liz, I wholeheartedly agree. From disinfecting wipes to hand sanitizing gels, I’d risk it to say that the majority of Americans have become preoccupied with being as clean as possible and daily (and sometimes even twice-a-day) showers tend to be a part of that ideal.

Brittany M October 10, 2012 at 10:58 pm

I find this post particularly interesting. A few years back I visited the dermatologist due to what I believe is/was eczema. Anyway, the dermatologist told me that showering every day wasn’t necessary due to how rapid my skin replicates (I may be off with the language/jargon) and that it actually is contributing to drying my skin out. I do believe that showering everyday is a cultural norm for Americans and I’d like to see some research or statistics regarding dermal issues in Americans compared to others.

egndukwe October 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Brittany, that would definitely be an interesting fact to consider. During the research for this piece, I was really intrigued by the suggestion that excessive hygiene could be part of what triggers some skin conditions. Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad you enjoyed reading :)

Kelechi N October 11, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Interesting article, but I will continue to enforce daily bathing of the Sailors on my ship! Living next to 85 of my Brothers in Arms, as we knit the Blanket of Freedom that keeps so many warm at night, has the potential to spread skin rashes like the snap of a finger!

Great blog, and I look forward to reading more!

Cheers,
The People’s Lieutenant

egndukwe October 11, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I’d agree that there are some scenarios where frequent showers are a necessity and I could imagine that 85 Naval sailors in close proximity might be one of them. Hopefully their Executive Officer exemplifies admirable standards of hygiene for them to follow. Glad you enjoyed the piece :)

Elizabeth Fryer October 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Really liked it, Ezinne.

My husband showers two, three, four times a week. But he doesn’t stink. I LOVE the smell of his hairline after a couple days out of the shower.

(Should this comment go in the “Does Sex Have a Smell?” blog?)

Jennifer October 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I love that you gave an explanation the percentages, working out the actual weight and number of the skin microbiome. I really think it helps put things in perspective that is is serious business :)

Just one technical detail: psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, and while there may be a relationship between it and the symbiotic organisms on our skin, listing it in this context is a little misleading, in my opinion, because it’s far more than just a skin condition. How about mentioning eczema with any number of conditions we’re constantly expected to treat with countless over the counter options, like acne, dermatitis, dandruff, or even chronic dry skin.

There’s actually been a fair amount of research on the causes of psoriasis, and while there’s no single and concrete answer, there’s a lot of information available about contributing factors: http://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis/causes

Margaret October 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Ezinne,
Growing up with a drought, my parents always had a rule of only showering every other day. As an adult, I mostly shower more often because I like the way I feel after a nice shower. It is good to know that skipping a day is not unhealthy though.

Thanks
Margaret

e2 October 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

I do wash frequently since I tend to sweat at night and get greasy hair, but simply don’t wash so thoroughly. Basically hair, armpits and privates which most of the time is just fine. It’s a habit I picked up after starting to exercise much more and thus sometimes taking 2 showers a day, which is horrible on the skin. One extra advantage of frequent exercise is that sweating seemingly cleans the pores much better and more safely than most soaps, in a similar way to how the Fins I know clean up by taking a sauna.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: