If you are like most people, you probably take a shower at least once a day. Whether it’s to help you wake up in the morning, to relax you after a long day, or simply to wash away unwanted sweat and odour, having regular showers is an ingrained part of our daily routine.
But is the habit of washing ourselves with soap and water a good one? Or is it actually doing us – and the environment – more harm than good?
Less cleaning = better health
From the point of view of James Hamblin, a preventive medicine physician, lecturer at Yale and author of Clean – The New Science of Skin, our need to follow an ablution ritual is actually misguided and unnecessary. According to the latest dermatological research, our skin hosts a veritable microcosm of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorganisms that live in symbiosis with us – or at least, they try to.
In part due to over a century of targeted advertising by the soap and cosmetics industry, we have come to believe that in order to be healthy and attractive, we need to invest a significant amount of time and money to keep ourselves clean. But scientists are now finding that frequent washing with hot water, soaps, and detergents, not to mention the wide-spread use of cleansers, scrubs, wipes and astringents, may actually be harmful to our health. Since the microorganisms that live on our skin (known as the microbiome) help to keep our skin healthy by feeding on dead skin cells and excess oils, excessive washing actually disrupts not only our skin’s natural rhythm, but also kills off the beneficial microbiome, allowing harmful microorganisms to take over.
The full implications are still being explored, but it is believed that a disrupted microbiome may contribute to the development of asthma, allergies and other autoimmune disease in individuals who are susceptible to these conditions. And, in a more general – albeit counterintuitive sense – washing less frequently actually helps decrease the bad BO that many of us are trying to target in the first place, can improve the look and feel of your hair, and help clear up persistent acne and other problematic skin conditions.
While the majority of the findings in favour of showering less come from personal experiences, like those Mr Hamblin, from a historical point of view, our obsession with showering is a relatively new one. Until the wide-spread adoption of indoor plumbing, as well as the more recent obsession with anti-bacterial soaps and cleaners, most of us lived a ‘dirtier’ life, and we tend to think of our ancestors as being grimy, smelly and riddled with lice, and that baths were viewed as ‘bad’ for your health. But recent research is starting to dispel these simplistic notions. For instance, while the health benefits of good hygiene were extolled by Medieval medical practitioners, their concept of good hygiene was different from ours. Instead of bathing regularly, people concentrated on areas where bad odours could develop, such as their mouth, armpits, groin and feet.
Even more interestingly, there is a growing consensus among dermatologists today that our supposedly smelly ancestors may have been wiser about their hygiene than we are today. Generally speaking, unless you work up a sweat every day, or work in an industry where you come home covered in dirt or chemicals, you only need to shower a few times a week, and even then, soap is optional. And, if you do opt for soap, you should choose products that are free of harsh chemicals and additives and only use them on your armpits, groin area and feet in order to prevent dryness and other skin conditions from developing.
Fewer showers = Lower water consumption
Another reason to consider cutting back on showers is that they are surprisingly bad for the environmental.
Obviously, when we think about the environmental impact of taking a shower, we think about water usage. According to a national study of residential water use, Americans uses about 17 gallons of water when they take an average shower lasting 8 minutes. This increases to 24 gallons when we opt for a bath. Now multiply that volume by the number of people in your house (typically 4) and again by the number of times each of you takes a shower per day, and you are suddenly looking at an astronomical amount of water that literally goes down the drain. Add to this the fact that about 20% of the water run during a shower is unused (typically because you are waiting for the water to warm up, or you are soaping yourself away from the showerhead), and it is no wonder that drought prone areas like California are now imposing water use restrictions to mitigate against droughts.
But in addition to the sheer volume of water that showers use up, they also leave a significant carbon footprint. Heating hot water accounts for 17% of a home’s electricity usage, and unless your utilities are provided by a 100% green provider, then your predilection for hot showers is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
So, cutting back on showering is not only beneficial for our health, but is also good for the environment. Less frequent showers help conserve precious water resources, reduce CO2 emissions (not just from our own home, but also from the point of view utilities providers and water treatment services)and help mitigate the effects of drought and wildfires in drier areas.