Could Droughts End the Daily Shower?

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 In the shower scene from the film Psycho, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) screams in terror as Norman Bates tears open her shower curtain.
Photo: Corbis

Earlier this month, California enacted water restrictions for the first time in state history, which for some cities will mean cutting water usage up to 35 percent. State and city officials have been nudging Californians to use less water since last summer, introducing penalties like steep fines for wasting water, and cash incentives for replacing grassy lawns with drought-friendly landscapes. 

But there’s an even simpler change Californians can make — though one most of them might find distasteful. For the sake of water conservation, it may be time Californians (and perhaps the rest of us, too) started thinking of the daily shower as a luxury rather than a hygienic necessity. Indeed, some in California are already doing just that. “I only shower once a week,” Maureen Prystas of San Diego told the New York Times last week.

True, the once-a-week shower is pushing the outer limits of social acceptability. But Americans’ strongly entrenched once-a-day shower habit is probably extreme in its own right, as dermatologists and microbiologists alike say there is no hygienic need to shower daily. Space your showering out to every other day, or a couple of times a week, and you can drastically reduce the amount of water you use, while still keeping yourself clean enough to exist in polite society — in other words, you won’t stink, assure scientists.

Interest in the unwashed life is something that has come up in the popular media from time to time in the past several years, most recently after Glee actress Naya Rivera said while guest-hosting The View that showering every day was “such a white people thing.” She was referencing a BuzzFeed article posted earlier that week, which quoted two dermatologists who argued that showering daily may be doing more harm than good for your skin. Similar stories about hair-washing have also started popping up; now dry shampoo sales are on the rise, their market share 500 percent of what it was just six years ago, according to the market-research firm Mintel.

Really, the definition of clean is almost entirely culturally dependent, and if we’re facing a future of more water shortages and restrictions, the way our culture defines the word will almost certainly begin to change. Writer Katherine Ashenburg touches on this in her (fascinating) 2007 book The Dirt on Clean, which includes a brief history of the ups and downs in Western cleanliness customs, from the clean-freak Greeks and Romans, to the Middle Ages (sometimes called the “thousand years without a bath”), to our modern North American standards.

She notes that the rise of the daily shower coincided almost exactly with the rise of modern advertising. Take a 1919 ad for a deodorant called Odorono, which introduced women to the fear of underarm odor as something they themselves couldn’t detect, but which was “distinctly noticeable to others.” (Sales increased 112 percent after the ad’s appearance, Ashenburg notes.)

Later, throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, ads that featured images of grinning brides linked soap with a better chance of romance (“Skin that says I do!”). And men were targeted, too, with magazine ads promising, “There’s self-respect in SOAP & WATER.” It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when daily bathing became the norm, but Ashenburg writes that it wasn’t until World War II that most American homes came equipped with a full bathroom.

Ashenburg closes her book with a brief, speculative peek at what the future of cleanliness might look like. “Nothing … would change our bathing habits more quickly and thoroughly than a serious water shortage,” she writes on the final page.

I really hope I wasn’t being prophetic!” the author told Science of Us. “I take a water shortage very seriously — but, that said, I am so not worried what would happen to us in terms of our cleanliness … if we reduced the average time of our showers, or even went back to just spot washing.”

Because abandoning the daily shower doesn’t mean a total abandonment of personal hygiene; rather, it means avoiding the water-waste that comes along with showering every day. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that showerheads spray up to two and a half gallons of water per minute. If the average shower lasts eight minutes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, then that’s up to 20 gallons of water down the drain, every shower, even though we simply don’t need to use that much water to get clean. “We’re pouring so many liters of water over ourselves to remove, essentially, just a few specks; it’s an extraordinary thing to do,” Ashenburg said. “It’s kind of like we’re killing a butterfly with a hammer.”

That’s not to say showering plays no hygienic role, of course. Bathing or showering does remove the dead squamous cells, called corneocytes, you’ve shed since your last shower, and the skin bacteria attached to it. But research has suggested there’s a limit to how dirty a person can really get, microbiologically speaking.

As part of an inventive (and gross) study done in the 1970s, University of Washington microbiologist Charles A. Evans took skin samples from a small group of people, and then asked them not to bathe for seven days, to see if it made any difference in their skin flora. “And after a couple days, the … bacteria on the skin equilibrated,” said Elaine Larson, associate dean of research at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who wrote about Evans’s work in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control. “In other words, after a certain period of time, your skin didn’t get dirtier, microbiologically dirtier.”

And the microbes you do gather on your skin are not dangerous or likely to cause illness, to yourself or anyone else. In fact, much of the bacteria on the skin’s surface may be “good” bacteria, which may help lessen inflammation and help with the healing process after injury, according to recent research led by Dr. Richard Gallo, a dermatologist at the University of California, San Diego. “Frequent bathing may be removing these good microbes and permitting disease-causing microbes to take their place,” Gallo said.

Hand-washing, it’s important to note, is an entirely separate matter, as unwashed (or improperly washed) hands are among the surest ways to pick up and transfer harmful and dangerous infections. And yet it’s this humble habit we tend to overlook, with one 2013 field study suggesting that just 5 percent of Americans (as surreptitiously observed by Michigan State University researchers) wash according to CDC guidelines. But “aside from hand cleaning, specific evidence is lacking to link bathing or general skin cleansing with preventing infections,” Larson wrote in her journal article. “Frequent bathing has aesthetic and stress-relieving benefits but serves little microbiologic purpose.”

The hygienic perspective is one thing. The social pressure to shower daily is another; you’ll earn little public regard for your water-conservation efforts if those efforts make you smell like feet. The body-odor question, unfortunately, lacks a one-size-fits-all kind of answer, said George Preti, a organic chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, who has studied human body odor for four decades. “It can happen right away or it can take a week — it’s very individualistic,” Preti said. For example, some lucky people’s sweat doesn’t make them stink; others have exactly the opposite problem.

Still, cutting back to showering every other day, or even every third day, will likely not make most normal, healthy people smelly enough to incur social consequences, the experts I spoke with agreed (though levels of physical activity are an important factor). Let’s even take that one step further: Anyone (even athletes) acutely interested in assuaging his or her water guilt can probably get away with a twice-weekly shower, provided this person “spot cleans” — that is, scrubs the stinkier parts of the body (feet, armpits, genitals) with warm water and mild soap. “Even just standing up the way our ancestors did until about 1900 — you could just stand up and wash your whole body with a washcloth and soap,” Ashenburg said.

And then there’s the vanity argument against the daily shower. When you scrub at your skin every day in a valiant effort to remove the previous day’s grime, you’re also damaging the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum. This is a protective barrier of cells bound together by fat that helps moisturize the skin. “So it probably is not very advantageous to shower that often, because it dries out your skin,” Larson said. “And one of the problems with drying of skin — you can become more vulnerable to abrasions or skin breakdowns.” This is especially true for older people, but younger skin, too, can be damaged by over-washing, especially with water that’s too hot.

To be clear, without the threat of a water shortage, there is no real reason not to shower every day, if the shower’s psychological charms, and the fresh-start feeling of a good rinse, are luxuries you enjoy. But it may be time we started thinking of the practice that way: as a luxury. Author Ian McEwan notes this (and Ashenburg quotes it in her book) in his 2005 novel Saturday: “When this civilization falls, when the Romans, whoever they are this time around, have finally left and the new dark ages begin, this will be one of the first luxuries to go.”