Some people don't feel clean without a long hot shower. But is a daily shower necessary—or even healthy?
“I think showering is mostly for aesthetic reasons,” says Dr. Elaine Larson, an infectious disease expert and associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing. “People think they’re showering for hygiene or to be cleaner, but bacteriologically, that’s not the case.”
Larson’s research has shown the antibacterial soaps and cleaning products many people use in their homes aren’t any better than plain old soap at lowering the risk for infectious diseases. And when it comes to showering, all that scrubbing and exfoliating doesn’t amount to much.
“Bathing will remove odor if you’re stinky or have been to the gym,” she says. But in terms of protecting you from illness, washing your hands regularly is probably adequate.
Too much all-over bathing may even raise your risk for some health issues. Dry, cracked skin opens up gaps for infection-causing germs to slip through. That means frequent bathing when your skin is already dry—and especially as you age, when your skin becomes thinner and less hydrated—may increase the odds of coming down with something, Larson says.
Other experts agree. “I think most people over-bathe,” says Dr. C. Brandon Mitchell, assistant professor of dermatology at George Washington University.
Mitchell says washing can strip your skin of its natural oils, and may also disrupt the skin's population of immune system-supporting bacteria. That’s especially true of antibacterial cleansers, which both he and Larson recommend you ditch. (More reason to skip the antibacterial soaps: Some research has linked triclosan, an ingredient found in many of these products, to potential health risks.)
So what’s the ideal shower frequency? In terms of your health—not how you look or smell—probably once or twice a week, Mitchell says. “Your body is naturally a well-oiled machine,” he says. “A daily shower isn’t necessary.”
People might not appreciate your natural musk. (And that’s no small concern: One recent study found smelliness ranks among the top relationship dealbreakers.) But as long as you’re washing your hands—and your clothing, which naturally rubs off and collects a lot of the dead cells and grime your body accumulates—you’d likely suffer no ill health effects, Larson says.
Historically, bathing has fallen in and out of favor. “The ancient Romans were a very bath-loving people,” says Dr. Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt On Clean: An Unsanitized History. “They typically frequented their amazing public baths once daily.” Ancient Egyptians and, to a lesser extent, ancient Greeks were also big on baths, she says.
But the fall of the Roman Empire wiped out the aquatic infrastructure that allowed many people access to fresh water for washing, Ashenburg says. The habit of bathing took another big hit during the 14th century when medical experts at the Sorbonne in Paris declared washing a health concern. Warm water opened pores, and so could increase a person’s risk of contracting the bubonic plague, they claimed (incorrectly). A fear of hot water and bathing persisted for the next 500 years, Ashenburg says.
Now, regular bathing is back in vogue—and if you really dig a daily shower, feel free to indulge if your skin feels healthy and hydrated (water conservation arguments aside, of course).
“I tell patients who shower daily not to lather their whole bodies,” Mitchell says. Hit your pits, butt and groin, which are the areas that produce strong-smelling secretions. The rest of your body doesn’t need much soaping, he says.
Your hair is trickier. “Some people with a dry scalp and hair probably only need to lather it every few weeks,” Mitchell says. But even if you have dandruff or some other scalp issue that requires more frequent washing, a couple washes a week will suffice, he says.