Could You Start Having 4-Minute Showers?

It saves water, energy, time, and money.

shadowy picture of man in shower

Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

I have three children whose opinions on personal hygiene have taken a drastic turn of late. They've gone from reviling cleanliness to requesting showers or baths on a daily basis. While I'm happy they're turning from their filthy ways, I fear they've discovered the great pleasure there is to be had from a hot steamy shower after a long day of play. 

As a result, I've had to crack down on the length and frequency of their showers, explaining that it simply uses too much water and energy for all three of them to be lingering. They're not pleased with me, but this is an important discussion—and one that I was interested to see appear in the Guardian last week. Some sustainability topics, it seems, never grow old or go out of date.

A piece called "The four-minute shower: how to wash to save money, water—and stay stink-free" argued that, in light of rising energy costs and more pressing environmental concerns, people should be aiming for a four-minute daily shower. A normal shower head produces 9.6 gallons (36 liters) of water in four minutes—significantly less than the average bath, which uses 21 gallons (80 liters).

"It's about money," the article states. "The cost of hot water has risen dramatically, and is set to rise again in the coming year. As a consequence, showers are getting expensive." Baths already are. "According to Yorkshire Water the annual cost of having baths rose from £303.70 [US$371] in 2021 to £542.88 [US$662] in 2022... And it could rise to as much as £1,023.00 [US$1,248] when energy tariffs increase in April."

Commenters had so much to say about four-minute showers that a separate piece was dedicated to their responses. Most revolved around practical strategies for making the most of four minutes, along with plenty of reassurance that it's actually not all that bad.

One man said that, in Australia, "the water supplier had given each householder a three-minute hourglass egg timer to stick to the wall of the bathroom shower. The Aussies then practised 'beat the egg timer' while showering." Another preached the benefits of the "navy shower" (described here by Treehugger writer Sami Grover): "To economise when showering, we were told to to rinse, switch the water off, lather and shampoo, then rinse again. Water use was around a minute and a half, and did the job perfectly." 

Last but not least, one reader urged others to substitute a "good old-fashioned strip wash" (or a sponge bath, as my mother called it): "Now in my 80s, I still use this method. It doesn't require lots of hot water, can be done quite quickly, and there is less risk of slipping and injuring oneself."

Practical strategies abound—and are not discussed often enough, in my opinion. Hence, the following list of ideas that I've tried or gathered from others.

How to Do It

Shower or bathe kids together. This works best for younger children, for obvious reasons. If your kids aren't terribly dirty, they could have consecutive baths in the same water, perhaps with a small top-up to reheat it. If they can't do that, give them a two- or three-minute limit and set each child on timing the other. Then it becomes a game, slightly competitive, which my kids seem to love. (Also, washing kids is overrated: Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis hardly ever do it.)

Aim for the four-minute limit yourself. Use a timer that's placed on the other side of the room, forcing you to get out without hitting snooze, or—more fun—listen to a song that's four minutes long. If you know the song well, that'll give you some time to prepare for the end. Harvard University recommends Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," which runs for 4:36 (so you get a bit of extra time there). Other ideas: A-ha's "Take On Me" runs for 3:45, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" is 4:17, and ABBA's "Dancing Queen" is 3:49.

And if that's just too tragically short, what about two 14-minute showers a week instead of seven four-minute ones? (Just a thought.)

The navy shower tactics are valuable. There really is no reason to let the shower head run while you're soaping up your body or shampooing hair. I try to streamline the process, e.g. putting conditioner in my hair and then letting it sit while I turn off the shower head and shave my legs using water captured in a yogurt container that I can dip my razor into. A final rinse takes care of everything.

You could approach it Japanese-style, as described by Lloyd Alter in another Treehugger post. Public baths in Japan place people on stools, with a bucket, ladle, soap, and sponge—or a small hand shower for easier rinsing. "Sitting while you shower is safer and I found a lot more relaxing; having no water running meant that I could take as long as I wanted," he wrote. Place a stool in your shower or tub and see if that could work.

Try going longer between hair washes. Dealing with long hair can take up a great deal of showering time, water, and energy. One obvious solution is to wash your hair less—a change that may take a while but is well worth the effort, in my opinion. If you have a hand shower, you could also wash your hair apart of your body, leaning over a tub to do so. I go much faster when I do this, mostly because it's uncomfortable. You could ask a partner to help you with this, too. Think of it as the "salon experience."

Then there's the aforementioned sponge bath, which deserves more attention. If you're really wanting to be efficient, plug and fill the bathroom sink with warm soapy water, grab a clean washcloth, strip down, stand on a towel, and scrub the important parts—the "pits and bits", maybe feet too—which, as anyone striving to reduce soap use for the sake of their skin microbiome already knows, is sufficient.

Collect water in a bucket if it takes a long time to heat up. Use it to water plants in the bathroom or elsewhere. If you have a top-loading washing machine or need to mop the floor, this water could be useful for that.

How about a cold shower? They're all the rage right now and you most certainly will not want to linger any longer than is absolutely necessary. An outdoor shower has a similar effect; you won't be as inclined to waste time.

But It Feels So Good!

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the profound pleasure that comes with taking a lengthy hot shower or bath. Many of us take our time simply because it feels so good. We linger in the hot water and steam long after our bodies have been cleaned because it's relaxing, it's conducive to focused thought, it's an escape from everything else that needs to be done. 

Ask yourself, can those same feelings be captured elsewhere, in other less energy-intensive ways? For example, could you have a shorter shower and then escape to your bedroom, swaddled in comfy sweats, to enjoy a few minutes of quiet solitude? Or could you lie in the sun in the backyard or rest in a hammock with a good book? Could you lock the door to your office and temporarily prevent interruptions from enthusiastic children? (I'm asking for a friend.)

I do not think that signing oneself up for a life of total asceticism is sustainable (in the "able to be maintained" sense of the word), but it doesn't hurt to familiarize oneself with less wasteful ways of achieving the same goal of physical cleanliness and striving to work these into one's routine whenever possible. Even replacing half of your regular showers or baths with shorter versions can help—and you might find you don't mind it. Consider doing it for a week or a month, or giving yourself a Lenten challenge this winter.