You Don't Need to Shower So Much

Screen capture. The Atlantic

What we define as 'clean' may not be so great for our bodies. Here's why we should rethink our approach to personal hygiene.

If you shower for 20 minutes every day and live to be 100, then you will have spent 12,167 hours of your life washing yourself. That's a very long time to have the water running. Expensive, too. Then there’s the health problem. Although you might think you’re clean, reeking of perfumed body wash, you’re actually not.

Showers are overrated, according to James Hamblin, senior editor at The Atlantic and medical doctor. As part of a video series called “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” Hamblin has spent the last three episodes focusing on the human microbiome. The last episode, called “You Probably Don’t Need To Shower,” challenges the notion that we need to be constantly cleaning our skin.

There is a microbial ecosystem that lives on our skin. As scientists learn more about the relationship between this system and our health, it leads to questions about the wisdom of scrubbing away the bacteria on a daily basis with powerful detergents. Not only does soap eradicate the bacterial populations, but it also creates fluctuating cycles of dryness and oiliness that make us shower and slather on chemicals even more.

In the episode, Hamblin speaks with journalist Julia Scott, who went one month without any kind of skin care products and sprayed herself with live bacteria in order to rebalance her skin’s microbial populations. Hamblin also interviewed Dr. Larry Weiss, head of AOBiome, a company that develops the soap-alternative made of Nitrosomonas eutropha bacteria that Scott used. Microbiologist Martin Blaser, who bathes instead of showers, tells Hamblin that there are good bugs and bad bugs: the good ones helps us to live our lives, whereas removing the bad ones may not be doing us any favors.

Hamblin decided to give showerless-living a try:

“At first, I was an oily, smelly beast. The odor of bodies is the product of bacteria that live on our skin and feed off of the oily secretions from the sweat and sebaceous glands at the base of our hair follicles. Applying detergents (soaps) to our skin and hair every day disrupts a sort of balance between skin oils and the bacteria that live on our skin. When you shower aggressively, you obliterate the ecosystems. They repopulate quickly, but the species are out of balance and tend to favor the kinds of microbes that produce odor.
“But after a while, the idea goes, your ecosystem reaches a steady state, and you stop smelling bad. I mean, you don’t smell like rosewater or Axe Body Spray, but you don’t smell like B.O., either. You just smell like a person.”

While most of us may not be ready to go completely shower-free, there is certainly value in rethinking one’s approach. At the very least, detoxify the products you use, opting for gentler, greener cleansers. Shower less aggressively, without scrubbing at your skin. Use less soap; try the ‘pits and bits’ tactic, soaping only in those key places, while sticking with plain water on the rest of your body. Wash your hair less. (Switching to the ‘no poo’ method allows me to stretch my hair for 5-6 days in between washings.)

As Grist reports humorously, one mystery still remains that Hamblin has not yet clarified: Is he single?