Spring is here. That means longer, warmer days — and, for many people, more frequent showering to wash away the sweat and smells that come with higher temperatures.
Here’s the thing, though: Your regular showers may be grosser than your sweat.
There isn’t much research that can tell you exactly how often to bathe, or with what methods. But a compelling argument suggests that showering regularly rids your skin of essential oils and organisms — and is therefore bad for your health, your scent, and the balance of life on your body.
A growing body of evidence, in fact, suggests that our shampoo-scrubbed lifestyles, along with a number of other factors, are damaging a complex system that science does not yet fully understand: the human microbiome.
Showering too much can affect the way your body functions
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, archeae, viruses, and other microbes that live in and on your body. 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.
The science doesn’t yet offer a full picture of the role our microbiomes play in our lives, but compelling indirect evidence suggests that showering damages the microbiome on your skin. And without a healthy microbiome, your skin seems to struggle to maintain a healthy chemical balance and stave off damage and infection.
It’s well established that a shower with shampoo and soap strips your hair and skin of much of its microbe complement and necessary oils — which the cosmetic industry attempts to replace with conditioners and moisturizers. People living in indoor, urbanized and sterilized conditions therefore often have less complex and robust microbiomes.
A study of the people of Yanomami village in the Amazon, on the other hand, who had “no documented previous contact with Western people,” found that their skin, mouths, and faeces hosted the richest complement of bacteria in any human population examined until that point. The complement even included antibiotic-resistant species, though the villagers hadn’t had any known contact with antibiotics.
What to do about the stink
Part of the reason there’s not much scientific research into showering practices may be that it’s difficult to assemble a large body of subjects willing to skip bathing for a long period of time. Instead, the published science on shower-skipping mostly consists of stories about personal experimentation.
These stories, anecdotally at least, answer one important question about shower-skipping: What to do about the smell?
Some of the bacteria that make up your microbiome excrete nasty-smelling chemicals that can create odours that waft from your body’s folds and creases. If you stop rinsing them away, things could get pretty gross. But shower skippers say that problem only exists because our microbiome is so disrupted in the first place. Their theory is that your body can adjust to a new shower-free normal, and your renewed, recalibrated microbiome will smell pleasant — if a bit earthy.
A prominent example is James Hamblin of The Atlantic, who published an essay in June 2016 explaining his decision to give up the daily scrub.
“At first, I was an oily, smelly beast,” he wrote. But 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.)
Hamblin also 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, which are 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. So if you decide to start skipping showers, it’s might be a good idea to avoid being around people you want to impress for a while.
Scott also found that just a week of showering at the end of the experiment destroyed her newly-cultivated colony entirely.
Based on this very limited, unreliable evidence, it does seem unnecessary to use soap and cosmetics every day. But I can’t say I’m personally brave enough to switch to a shower-free regime just yet.
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