By Dr. Mercola
The average American showers nearly every day, which is, according to a Euromonitor poll, the global average as well. Showering frequency is similar in Spain, France, and India, although in Mexico, the Middle East, and Australia, eight showers a week is the norm.1
This pales in comparison to Colombia and Brazil, where close to 10 and 12 showers are taken each week, respectively. Meanwhile, people living in Japan, the UK, and China shower less frequently, coming in at around 5 showers a week.
It wasn’t always this way. This daily shower, some might say, obsession was virtually unheard of just 100 years ago.
As indoor plumbing became more widespread, it certainly made the ritual of bathing more convenient, but the hygiene ritual most people use today – soap included – is a fairly recent phenomenon.
The Selling of ‘Clean’
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, not coincidentally when advertising became prolific, that Americans began to be very concerned about personal hygiene. As Gizmodo reported, the advertising industry created a “need” for newfangled products like “toilet soap” and “mouthwash” where one had never before existed:2
“Americans had to be convinced their breath was rotten and theirs armpits stank. It did not happen by accident. ‘Advertising and toilet soap grew up together,’ says Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean.
…Even our very notion of ‘soap’ changed. Until the mid-19th century, ’soap’ meant laundry soap, the caustic stuff used for scrubbing soiled linens and clothes.
A kinder, gentler alternative was invented for cleaning the body, and it had to be called ‘toilet soap’ to distinguish from the unrefined stuff. Today, ‘toilet soap’ is a superfluous designation. Toilet soap is simply soap.
Advertisers did not invent a notion of cleanliness out of a vacuum, but they did cannily tap into anxieties wrought by social upheavals in the early 20th century.
As people moved from farm to factory to office, working spaces became where they spent all day with strangers in closer and closer quarters. Men and women began to work together. Women, especially, were a target of ads playing on the theme, ‘Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.’
To this day, there are still discrepancies between how much washing actually occurs in the shower, at least as far as shampooing goes.
Most people do not wash their hair during every shower. In the US, for instance, even though there are close to seven weekly showers, on average, there are only four weekly shampoos.
Showering Daily Might Be Detrimental to the Beneficial Bacteria on Your Skin
You’re probably aware of the beneficial bacteria in your gut, but your skin is also teeming with bacteria, including some that might help prevent infections. When you shower, you not only wash away dirt but you also disturb this microbial balance, such that daily showers might ultimately upset your health.
Dr. Richard Gallo, chief of the dermatology division at the University of California, San Diego, told the New York Times:3
“Good bacteria are educating your own skin cells to make your own antibiotics [and] they produce their own antibiotics that kills off bad bacteria.”
It’s widely known that showering too often can strip your skin of beneficial oil, leading to dryness and cracks (especially if the water is hot and harsh soaps are used). However, excessive showering may also make certain conditions, like eczema, worse. Dr. Gallo noted:4
“It’s not just removing the lipids and oils on your skin that’s drying it out.” … It could be ‘removing some of the good bacteria that help maintain a healthy balance of skin.’”
Not to mention, if you’re on city water and you don’t have a filter on your shower, showering is a major source of exposure to carcinogenic chlorination byproducts such as trihalomethanes (THMs). THMs are associated with bladder cancer, gestational and developmental problems.
Just the simple act of showering in treated water, in which you have absorption through both your skin and lungs, may pose a significant health risk to you—and to your unborn child, if you are pregnant.
Numerous studies have shown that showering and bathing are important routes of exposure and may actually represent MORE of your total exposure than the water you drink. So in this respect, cutting back on your shower time would be important to help limit your exposure.
The Unwashed Revolution?
There is a growing minority of people who are bucking the expectation of the daily shower. Some might even call it trendy to wash less often. I happen to be one of them.
I am concerned with washing off beneficial microbes with soap so I restrict using soap to my armpits (rather than use deodorant) and to wash my hands when dirty. Also, I am barefoot most of the day so I wash the soles of my feet every night before going to bed. All this only takes a few bars of soap a year.
Thankfully there is a greater awareness and understanding that beneficial microbes are not the enemy the media has portrayed them to be. The reality is that they are important for our health.
Others cite environmental concerns as their reason for fewer showers, especially water usage. One seven-minute shower uses more water than a bath, and it’s expected that water usage for showers will grow five-fold by 2021.5
Remember, it wasn’t long ago that a once-weekly bath was considered the norm. Daily (or more) washing is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Even dermatologists tend to frown on daily showers, especially in hot water and with harsh soap, because of the damage it can do to your skin. According to John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry:7
“A vigorous daily shower would disturb the natural bug flora of the skin as well as skin oils… As long as people wash their hands often enough and pay attention to the area of the body below the belt, showering or bathing every other day would do no harm …Even twice a week would not be a problem if people used a bidet daily as most infectious bugs hang around our lower halves… We should wash to stop cross-infection, not for grooming reasons.”
Avoid Lathering Your Whole Body When You Shower
Soap tends to remove the protective sebum that is full of beneficial fats that your body uses to protect your skin. Yet, many people regularly use soap to wash their entire skin surface and remove this protective covering… and then pay money to apply lotions to restore what they just removed. The irony is that most of the lotions are far inferior to sebum and many, if not most, are loaded with toxic ingredients that ultimately will worsen your health.
Science is clearly showing that your body’s microbiome plays a major role not just in your health, promoting or warding off skin diseases for example; it can also dramatically alter things like body odor. So, it’s really in your best interest to work with your microbiome, rather than against it. The best way to do this when you shower is to only wash the areas that really need washing. In most cases, this would be your underarms, groin area and, possibly, your feet.
As noted by Dr. Casey Carlos, assistant professor of medicine in the division of dermatology at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine:8 “It’s the hardest thing to get people to use soap only where they need it… People don’t realize that the skin does a pretty good job of cleaning itself.” As mentioned, about the only time I use soap on any body part other than my armpit or groin is when I am doing heavy woodchip work and am covered with woodchip dust. Typically, simply washing my armpits with soap and water is enough to stay odor free for me. Because I am barefoot most of the day I also wash the soles of my feet at night.
It’s been well over 40 years since I quit using antiperspirant or deodorant--even natural ones. I noticed they would cause a yellow stain in the armpit of my shirts. At first I thought the stain was due to my sweat but I quickly realized it was the chemicals in the antiperspirants. Even as a college student, I realized if the chemicals can destroy my clothes, it probably wasn’t good for my body, so I elected to avoid it. I find that regularly washing my armpits with soap and making sure my diet is clean with minimal sugar and plenty of fermented vegetables are all that is needed to keep my armpit odor from being offensive. If you still need further help, try a pinch of baking soda mixed into water as an effective all-day deodorant.
Tips for Healthier Showers
When you shower or bathe, make the water warm but not hot, and try not to linger. If you take long hot showers in the winter, your skin will likely pay the price and you will be exposed to more fluoride than drinking unfiltered tap water for several days along with loads of disinfection byproducts. As soon as you’re done showering, slather on some coconut oil to seal in the moisture. Also, don’t simply shower daily just because you think you should. In most cases, a daily shower isn’t necessary, and a soapy washcloth can be used for touch-ups. Both your body and the environment stand to benefit from using your shower only when necessary.
As the Irish Examiner put it:9
“We lessen the effects of showers — on our body and on the environment — by stepping under them for three minutes instead of ten, by reducing water temperature, and by avoiding harsh soaps and gels that exacerbate skin dryness. But, really, Professor [Elizabeth] Shove, [a sociology researcher at the University of Lancaster], says, ask yourself whether you need to do it before you turn on and step under. ‘We are pouring so many liters of water over ourselves to remove just a few specks of dirt,’ she says. ‘It is an extraordinary thing to do.’”