The compulsive urge to shower is a distinctly modern obsession. Bathing frequently is widely considered to be a necessary and non-negotiable task (read: duty), just as much as it’s a testament to good personal hygiene. In some ways, it’s even been rebranded, as many mundane things have, under the contemporary guise of self-care: a metaphor for washing off the world’s grimy, clinging crises.
But, what if we’re all wrong? What if we’re bathing too much? What if bathing (wait for it) doesn’t even require soap? Have we all been completely … brainwashed?
Maybe. At least, some seem to think so. An increasing number of people have decided to opt out of the whole daily bathing convention entirely, arguing that our skin is better off with less soap, and that our bodily bacteria — the good kind — will naturally do the job of cleaning and eliminating odour.
This is at least partially true: Dr. Ben Barankin, a Toronto dermatologist and the medical director at the Toronto Dermatology Centre, said going soapless wouldn’t be an assault on your personal hygiene.
“As far as germs and bacteria and those other things that might cause odours, 80 per cent of that will be cleaned off just by water itself,” Barankin told HuffPost Canada.
But, that remaining 20 per cent probably isn’t going anywhere — your body won’t kill it off naturally. “Most bacteria will stay in stable numbers,” Barankin said. “Although those in dark, warm, humid areas — like groin, under [the] breasts, and armpits — can proliferate more and be more likely to cause odour, itch, or even rash.”
This margin of error doesn’t seem to be halting the trend. And to be clear, it’s not that people are going completely shower-free, just that they’re simplifying their process, and only rinsing the areas they think are in need of it.
“I use my hands to scrub myself and get any grime off, but I’m sitting in court or at my desk most days, so it’s not like I’m getting bombarded with filth,” Jackie Hong, a reporter in the Yukon, told The Guardian. She still showers every day — she just doesn’t use soap.
Hong’s perspective isn’t wrong. Barankin said the rule of thumb on how and how often you should be washing is not a fixed thing. “It’s more of a personal choice, and it depends on different factors, like what you wear, and your genetics, and your age.”
For example: cotton is a more breathable fabric than polyester, and wearing it will allow moisture to escape so you won’t smell as bad. Some people have more active sweat glands than others, and are therefore more prone to body odour.
Kids, before puberty, don’t even need to shower every day, Barankin said, other than washing their armpits and groins — areas that some adults who wash less will still decide to use soap on.
“If you’re just sitting at home, or not running around all day and breaking a sweat, and not wearing tight or polyester clothing,” Barankin said, “then you can go days without showering, and that’s fine.”
The question here, though, is why. What makes someone trade the privileges conferred by modern plumbing for … well, abandoning them?
The answer, it seems, is that it solves a current dermal problem.
Soap is great for stripping away germs, but it can also strip away the skin’s protective oils, which are there to maintain a healthy balance in the skin and stave off dryness, breakouts, fine lines, wrinkles, weird pH levels, and susceptibility to environmental damage. Also, many dermatologists agree that we’re showering too often.
There is, as with anything, a historical context. “We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” Katherine Ashenburg, the Canadian author of “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History,” told the New York Times back in 2010. Given the presence of cars — less walking — and other labour-conserving technology — less moving — Ashenburg argues that “we have never needed to wash less, and we have never done it more.”
But like with the use of soap being viewed as “bad,” there are no studies proving the negative effects of “overwashing” — most of it, Barankin said, is experience-based. “There are people who can shower twice a day, for example, because they’re doing sports,” he says. “And as long as they aren’t using scalding hot water,” which strips oils from the skin, “and they’re moisturizing after, they will be fine.”
There is room for other concerns, too: some of the people who are choosing to shower less may be doing so to reduce their water usage. The average 10-minute shower uses about 60 litres of water, not to mention the energy it takes to heat that water, both of which aren’t great for the environment.
If the primary force behind going soapless is a bodily one, though, Barankin noted there are plenty of gentle soaps, cleansers (like micellar water), creams and moisturizers that can eliminate the risk of drying out the skin, and can stave off the likelihood of eczema.
Deciding to wash less, to make your bathing routine less complicated, is a funny affront to an age of what Amanda Hess, at the New York Times, called “spiritual consumerism.” A rigorous hygienic routine, performed with a sort of religious severity, is supposed to be like self-care. But, showering less, or eschewing soap entirely, is, for some, the ultimate form of self-preservation.