Cosmetic Design Europe ran a piece plugging a new product launch a few weeks back. It was promoting a product and was paid for by the manufacturer, so I won’t trouble to make a free contribution to their marketing campaign. But one of the points made in the article was highlighting the drawbacks of showering. This seemed interesting.
There are three downsides to showering according to the article:
1. It removes friendly bacteria.
2. It dries out the skin and hair. and
3. It is a waste of precious water.
Well that all sounds bad. As I say the original article was a puff piece so it didn’t trouble to quote references, so I decided to research it myself.
Showering Removes Friendly Bacteria
First off, does having a shower remove friendly bacteria?
The idea here is that there are bacteria on the skin that have some benefits that you don’t want to lose. There is a well established analogy with bacteria in the gut that carry out various processes helpful to digestion. But is there any evidence that the same is the case on the skin? Yes, but it is a bit thin. The skin is pretty well defended against bacterial colonisation. There are some antimicrobial agents produced by the skin including a poisonous gas called nitrous oxide. Nonetheless some bacteria can grow on the skin. These have developed the ability to inhibit the inflammatory response that the skin has to foreign bodies.
On the face of it this sounds like it isn’t a good thing. We are trying to get rid of them, but they have found a way round one of our key weapons. But the researcher who did the work that identified this mechanism speculated in his paper on the subject that this inhibition of inflammation might actually be helpful. Maybe he is right. Or maybe he isn’t – it was after all simply a discussion point. It might be a well informed opinion but it is just an opinion nonetheless. There has been an increase in inflammatory skin diseases like eczema in recent years which could conceivably be the result of showering away bacteria that would have inhibited the symptoms. But you’d also need to check whether this is balanced by a reduction in skin infective diseases like impetigo. These are reduced by skin cleansing.
I’d also be interested to know just how well a shower removes bacteria. They are notoriously fast growing so I would have thought that they would be back pretty soon after a shower.
Showers Dry The Skin
The point about dry skin however doesn’t need to be justified.
Showers do dry the skin out and this is something that people who shower regularly will know all about from personal experience. Standard shower gels are rich in surfactants that have a tendency to damage the skin’s barrier function and increase the rate at which it loses moisture. There is a need in the market for products that reduce this tendency. I hope we see more innovation in this area. One of the biggest problems here is that we all love bubbles, and it just happens that things create nice bubbles also tend to be most harmful to the skin. You could easily come up with much less drying products if the need for a foaming product was dropped. Educating people about this is a tough job. I know all about it, and I still like bubbles.
But if dry skin is a problem for you there is a lot to be said for not showering so often and when you do keeping the amount of shower gel you use down. Our daily hygiene routines are pretty deeply ingrained habits so this is tough to do. But we all get steadily drier skin over the years so this is a problem that isn’t going to go away and which will probably get worse. Showering certainly isn’t helping.
As to wasting water, well yes I suppose it does. We could save a lot of water by remaining dirty and smelly.
So unfortunately showering does come with its drawbacks. But I have a feeling it’s a habit not many of us are going to give up. It is still an enjoyable way to start a day.
Nature Medicine, DOI: 10.1038/nm.2062