Many people are now aware of the importance of your gut microbiome. Some even take proactive steps to protect it, like minimizing the use of antibiotics and eating fermented foods to support a healthy balance.
Less widely known is that such microorganisms don’t only populate your gut; they’re found throughout your body, including on your skin. Just as your gut depends on a balanced microbial state to function optimally, the balance of bacteria and other microbes on your skin also matters.
What’s more, the average American showers close to once each day,1 a hygiene habit that may be doing your body more harm than good.
A No-Shower Experiment
If you spend 20 minutes a day washing, that equates to about two years of your life spent in the shower or bath along with a hefty amount of money spent on the “necessary” accouterments like shampoo, conditioner, soap and moisturizer.2
What if you were to cut this back to showering once every other day, once every three days or, simply, hardly at all? Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic, tried the latter and wrote about his experience, explaining:3
“ … I started using less soap, and less shampoo, and less deodorant, and showering less. I went from every day to every other day to every three.
And now I’ve pretty much stopped altogether. I still wash my hands, all the time, which remains an extremely important way to prevent communicable diseases.
I still rinse off elsewhere when I’m visibly dirty, like after a run when I have to wash gnats off my face, because there is still the matter of society. If I have bed head, I lean into the shower and wet it down. But I don’t use shampoo or body soap, and I almost never get into a shower.”
At first, you may have some odor and greasy skin or hair. However, this may be the direct result of your prior aggressive showering routine. Body odor is the result of bacteria feeding on oily secretions from your sweat and sebaceous glands.
Washing with detergent soaps wipes out the bacteria temporarily, but it quickly reestablishes itself, typically with an imbalance that favors odor-producing microbes.
When you give your body a break from the soap and shampoo, however, the ecosystem has a chance to right itself and, in so doing, offensive body odor largely disappears.
“ … [Y]our ecosystem reaches a steady state, and you stop smelling bad,” Hamblin explained. “I mean, you don’t smell like rosewater … but you don’t smell like B.O., either. You just smell like a person.”4
How Shrewd Marketers Sold Americans the Idea 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. The advertising industry created a “need” for newfangled products like “toilet soap” and “mouthwash” where one had never before existed.5
Today most people engage in the habit of washing their hair and skin with soap and shampoo, which removes natural oils, and then adding those oils back via the use of synthetic moisturizer and conditioner.
The irony is that most of the lotions are far inferior to natural sebum and many, if not most, are loaded with toxic ingredients that ultimately will worsen your health.
The fact that daily washing can strip your skin of beneficial oil, leading to dryness and cracks (especially if the water is hot and harsh soaps are used), is a clue that your skin may be better off with a far less aggressive hygiene routine.
Though it may seem shocking to consider showering less, keep in mind that daily showering is a relatively new phenomenon.
Are There Risks to Excessive Showering?
There are risks on multiple levels, starting with the disruption of your skin’s microbial balance. The long-term repercussions of this are still being explored, but by removing beneficial bacteria from your skin, it could make skin conditions like eczema worse.6
Many members of the “no-poo” movement (a group of people who abstain from shampooing their hair) claim not shampooing leaves their hair healthier, shinier and less frizzy.
There’s also the issue of chemical-laden body washes and shampoos. When you cut back on showers, you negate the need for these products and their often-toxic ingredients. There are issues on an environmental level as well, especially in regard to 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 2021.7
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 by products 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 biggest issue, however, is that most people do not need to scrub their bodies from head to toe each morning or evening. It’s unnecessary and disruptive to the delicate and beneficial microbial communities living on your skin.
Try This for a Happy Medium
You may not be ready to give up showering but want to cut back from daily washing. One way to do this 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 Department 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.”
About the only time I use soap on any body part other than my armpits or groin is when I am doing work in my garden and wind up covered with woodchip dust. Most of that dust I simply spray off with a hose. Typically, simply washing your armpits with soap and water is enough to stay smelling clean.
It’s been well over 40 years since I quit using antiperspirant or deodorant — even natural ones.
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 Giving up Your Shampoo
As for your hair, start by increasing the length between your shampoos. This will help you retain the natural oils in your hair and cut back on your exposure to detergents and other chemicals.
Better still, when you do shampoo your hair, look for a natural shampoo that’s more than just soap-based. The pH of soap-based cleansers is very basic, about 8 to 9, which can cause damage to your hair by lifting cuticles and causing reactions, which affect the disulfide bonds in your hair.
Ingredients like sodium silicate and borax are added to help overcome the scum formation and dulling effect on your hair. Look for a natural shampoo without harmful chemicals that also has botanical extracts added, like chamomile for shine and added strength (to help prevent split ends and breakages).
Other beneficial ingredients include triticum vulgare (wheat) protein, which is an oil that helps your hair retain its moisture, and red clover, which may promote healthier-looking hair. Some people also try “shampooing” their hair with conditioner. This helps avoid stripping your hair of its natural oils, however you’ll want to be sure the conditioner you choose is non-toxic. Another option is to use coconut oil on your hair.
Will Bacterial Sprays Be the Showers of the Future?
Live bacteria sprays are now on the market, with their creators claiming you can spritz it on to naturally enhance and protect your skin’s microbiome while cleansing it of sweat and excess oil. One such spray contains ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that its co-creator, who hasn’t showered in more than a decade, uses personally.9
Probiotic (beneficial bacteria) soaps, lotions and other personal care products are also available at many health food stores. There hasn’t been much research on whether such products yield lasting results (or whether the bacteria is simply washed away with your next shower), but it’s an intriguing area of study.
It’s already known that probiotics can influence the health of your skin from the inside out, so it’s not a stretch that a topical treatment may also be useful, especially since so many people wipe out their microbial communities with daily sudsing. However, it may be equally if not more beneficial to let your skin’s microbes re-populate the “old-fashioned” way — by putting away your body wash and other cleansers so your skin has a chance to balance itself naturally.