Did you shower this morning? Yeah?
OK, I confess, I showered this morning too. But I feel pretty weird about it.
That’s because of surprisingly compelling argument that regular showers — AKA the harsh, scalding scour of essential oils and organisms from your skin — is bad for your health, your scent, and the balance of life on your body.
But it’s a difficult subject to write about, because there isn’t a body of research to point to that can tell you exactly how often you should cleanse yourself, or with what methods. In fact, this posed a problem for even writing this article; the original premise, a clear answer to the question “How often should I shower?” just does not appear in any of the available research.
What does exist is a growing body of evidence to suggest that our shampoo-scrubbed lifestyles, along with a number of other factors, are damaging a complex system science does not yet fully understand: the human microbiome.
Showering too much can mess with your skin, and even the way your body functions
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, archeae, viruses, and other microbes that live in and on your body. We know that these little foreign critters are deeply important to your health. Without them, your immune system, digestion, and even your heart would lose function or fail entirely.
It might make sense to understand the microbiome as a parallel and complementary organ system intertwined with the bulkier bags of wet tissue we typically understand to make up the human machine.
But researchers say the state of the science only offers a small slice of the full picture of the role our microbiomes play in our lives.
(Part of the problem? There’s little in the way of a focused effort to fund research into the subject, with grant structures siloing microbiome investigations into other, narrower specialties. The result is that it’s difficult for interested scientists to launch coordinated, multi-disciplinary studies.)
There’s compelling indirect evidence to suggest that showering damages your microbiome on your skin, which in turn damages your skin health.
At the broadest level, it’s fairly clear that indoor, urbanized and sterilized (crudely: Westernized) living leaves people with less complex and robust microbiomes.
A study of the people of Yanomami village in the Amazon, who had “no documented previous contact with Western people” found their skin, mouths, and faeces hosted the richest complement of bacteria in any human population examined until that point — a complement that included antibiotic-resistant species, despite no known contact with antibiotics.
And it’s well established that a shower with shampoo and soap strips your hair skin of much of its microbe complement, as well as necessary oils — which the cosmetic industry then attempts to replace, using conditioners and moisturizers.
What to do about the stink
All those dots in a row sure look like an arrow pointing toward the conclusion that showering too often is a bad idea for your health. But there’s no published research that I’m aware of drawing a clear, bright line between them.
(If I’ve missed something, I expect I’ll hear about it soon via all-caps notes in my inbox, and I’ll update accordingly.)
Part of the problem may be that it’s difficult to assemble a large enough body of subjects willing to skip showering for a long period of time to conduct a high-confidence controlled study. Instead, the published science on shower-skipping is mostly a stack stories of self-experimentation.
These stories, anecdotally at least, answer the most important question about shower-skipping: What to do about the stink?
Here’s the problem: Some of the bacteria that make up your microbiome excrete nasty-smelling chemicals that add up to odours wafting from your body’s folds and creases. Stop rinsing them away, or killing them with deodorant, and things could get pretty gross.
Still, shower skippers say that problem only exists because our microbiome is so disrupted in the first place.
The most prominent example is probably James Hamblin of The Atlantic, who published an essay in June 2016 explaining is decision to gradually give up the daily scrub.
“At first, I was an oily, smelly beast,” he wrote.
But the theory goes that your body adjusts to the new shower-free normal, and your renewed, recalibrated microbiome smells a lot more pleasant — if a bit more earthy than Old Spice.
That seems to have worked out for Hamblin:
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…
…And everything is fine. I wake up and get out the door in minutes. At times when I might’ve smelled bad before, like at the end of a long day or after working out, I just don’t. At least, to my nose. I’ve asked friends to smell me, and they insist that it’s all good. (Though they could be allied in an attempt to ruin me.)
Is a shower-free lifestyle actually healthier?
While it’s not entirely clear that people like Hamblin are healthier than the rest of us (that is such a fuzzy concept), there’s certainly no clear reason to think they’re less healthy either. And, as he points out, they sure do save a lot of time, water, and money getting up in the morning.
If you decide to cut down on your showering, or start skipping it entirely, it’s probably a good idea to avoid being around people you want to impress for a while.
Hamblin spoke to Julia Scott, a journalist who documented her own transition to shower-free living for The New York Times Magazine. Scott used products from a company called AOBiome intended to promote a healthy skin microbiome, and found that she smelled of onions for a little while, at least to some of her friends, while her body adjusted.
She also found that just a week of showering at the end of the experiment destroyed her newly-cultivated colony entirely.
So here’s the deal: I’m sold on the idea that scrubbing soap and cosmetics into my skin every day is probably a bad idea. But if I’m being honest with you, I’m not brave enough to switch over to a shower-free regime just yet.
In the meantime, I tweeted at Hamblin asking him if he’s kept up his no-shower routine, but he hasn’t responded.
If he does, I’ll ask him what he smells like.
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