How Often Should a Person Take a Shower?

04Aug12

I was wondering how often a person should shower or bathe. Presumably like most Americans, I thought the ordinary expectation was that a person should shower every day. This felt good, and seemed normal. I knew, however, that people in other cultures found this excessive, and also that it used a lot of water and energy and took extra time. So I decided to look into the matter.

The parameters seemed to be pretty broad. Beyond the once-a-day standard, there were probably people who showered multiple times a day. I heard one time about a guy, living in the California desert, who spent his days in the bathtub. I don’t know if there was water in it, but cooling could be a rationale for more frequent showering. Olympic swimmers probably needed to rinse off the bleach after every training session, which could occur several times a day. On the other extreme, a person might never shower if s/he was allergic to water or had no place to do so, or if age or disability made it a hassle.

This raised the question: what is the purpose of showering? I guessed that a predominant purpose was to wash off the stink — or, more likely for most of us, to prevent any possibility of stinking, even if we and those who are close to us detect no odor. Stink probably had something to do with bacteria, so maybe you could say the question of taking a shower was at least partly determined by what was best for health. I knew for a fact, however, that a person could live for several days without showering, and probably would not even get sick.

Of course, there could be good reasons for showering daily or even more often. For instance, as one mom put it, she would bathe her baby daughter every day, or even twice a day if she had “a blow out.” A vivid imagination suggested that, unless one had a particular love of floaters, showering could have certain advantages over bathing, with regard to purification of the rectal orifice. As a related point, the logic of warfare suggested that, as long as the ammo holds out, ’tis better to have shot and missed than never to have shot at all. In other words, there could be Klingons circling Uranus in stealth mode, such that only a properly organized scouting mission would be sure of flushing them out.

This brought to mind a different health-related purpose of showering. One time my cousin, brother, sister, and I formed a conga line and went shooting down a steep road on skates. People with foresight will say that all good things must end, and they are right. I did find it righteously edifying to watch my cousin do a face plant off the side of the road, but God punished me: my laughter led me to overlook gravel, which tripped me up and duly inserted itself into my leg. Fast forward a few days, and I am a festering, pus-laced mess. This actually did not have a happy shower solution, but fortunately I lived in an apartment complex with a jacuzzi, and that tool was a miracle-worker for purposes of blasting sand and pus out of my ripped-up extremity. I suppose I did thus pollute the water somewhat, and I was sorry about that, but the point is that you could probably buy a shower extension that would let you do the same thing in the privacy of your own home, if you had this sort of problem.

So there seemed to be a rule that a person should shower when s/he stinks or gets dirty or scratched up, which might occur often or never. But was there a separate rule or guideline indicating how often a person should shower when s/he does not stink, is not dirty, doesn’t have excessively greasy hair, and otherwise has no obvious need for a shower? A pediatrician said it was usually adequate to bathe active children once every few days. But how about for adults?

There was a much-remarked New York Times article that offered some arguments for showering less. Hair can look better unwashed (going as long as a month between shampoos, for one person they interviewed); beneficial skin bacteria should be left alone to kill bad bacteria; natural oils keep the skin from drying out. They didn’t say, but I wondered, whether a natural smell might also be aphrodisiac. In the olfactory zone, the article posed the perennial debate: “I don’t smell bad” versus “You think you don’t smell bad,” and quoted somebody for the idea that it’s actually OK to smell like yourself.

But was it really all right to smell like anything other than a field of lilies? My own market research suggested that it might possibly be, at least in some settings. At one time in life, experimenting with lifestyles (as one might put it), I would often go for several days without showering. I noticed a distinctive fragrance emanating from certain bodily regions, particularly in warm weather. And, you know, much like what we might say about a different category of personal odors, I found that I actually kind of liked the smell, as long as it was mine. But how would it play in the field? I tested this, unintentionally, through exercise. More precisely, I went for a ten-mile run and then took the bus back. By the time I paid my fare and plopped down in my bus seat, I was truly fragrant. I struck up a conversation with the young woman seated next to me and meekly volunteered that running made me stinky. She replied, “Actually, I smell buttered popcorn.” This sort of freaked me out — I mean, the last thing I needed at that point was a groupie — so I soon relocated to another seat. For the rest of the ride, she was occasionally glancing at me, and I was wondering what could possibly be going through her mind.

Showering less than daily was evidently not the norm. Acknowledging the difficulty of getting good data, the Times article cited one market research firm for the conclusion that more than 90% of Americans showered, shampooed, and used deodorant daily. Replies posted after two other articles suggested, au contraire, that there might actually be quite a few people who did not. A Cosmopolitan survey concluded that only 68% of its respondents showered five or more times per week. I did get a general sense that showering every other day — which might still be too often, in terms of what was optimally healthy — was becoming more socially acceptable.

A number of replies, posted in response to those various articles, echoed another theme in the Times article. It seemed that people used a variety of strategies in lieu of showering. These included a soapy washcloth or sponge bath, baby wipes, lemon as a deodorant, and dry shampoo. I suspected that these, done well, could sometimes actually be more effective than a shower in combating odors. For example, one could use a baby wipe in the nether regions a dozen times a day, if compulsion so required. You could even sniff it before and after, to aid in your data gathering processes. As another example, during a phase when I was primarily relying on the shower at the gym, I discovered that I had to take off the flip-flops and make a point of scrubbing between the toes, balancing on the other foot; otherwise, after a couple of days, the feet would stink. Just showering was not enough; you have to do it right.

I had not previously heard of dry shampoo, but that seemed like one way to reduce the need for showering and/or the amount of time spent with your head under the hydrant. Apparently the stuff had been around for years; I guess I just hadn’t done much thinking about shampoo. I saw, now, that it could be expensive, but you could also just make your own (with e.g., cornmeal, corn starch, or talcum or baby powder, alone or in combinations; one article made me wonder if crushed rice would work). There was also something called “no-rinse shampoo,” which seemed to contain a weak soap that could basically just be rubbed in and towel-dried out. Here, again, it seemed like you might be able to achieve the same effect DIY, perhaps by watering down some clarifying shampoo or some other simple detergent. Various remarks suggested that these no-shower approaches would work, but might leave your hair feeling gunky, though other people seemed to really like the stuff.

As I continued this line of inquiry, I started to turn green. Specifically, I came across a line of articles suggesting that shampoo ingredients might function as endocrine disruptors. The translation seemed to be that you could gain weight, experience early puberty (another life opportunity I missed), or mutate frogs downstream, because of ingredients in shampoo.

These various thoughts and sources led to some working conclusions. It seemed that I could probably be socially acceptable if I showered when I needed to, but in many typical situations might not do it more than every other day. Social acceptability would apparently be enhanced by just not telling people how often I showered. I would have to look into the baby wipes, sponge baths, and other shower alternatives mentioned above. I agreed with the stuff about how your hair might look better if you shower less; the dry shampoos were an unknown requiring further investigation. I was glad I had spent the time looking into this stuff: it would surely save me some time later, and for now I felt cleaner already.

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