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Article: There’s no need to shower every day – here’s why

Is washing ourselves very frequently necessary? Some experts believe that everyday showering is based more on a ‘social contract’ than actual need.

A few years ago, I stopped taking daily showers. Pandemic-induced work from home, moving in with a partner who showered less than me and pure, middle-age laziness pushed me to abandon an almost three-decades-long habit: So long as I don’t exercise, I now shower only around three times a week.

Some of my friends shower as little or even less – a few just once a week in winter, occasionally because of skin problems or a dislike of having wet hair – but others fail to align with me, or are even icked out. “I can’t wake up properly without my morning shower,” they say. “Every day has to start with a shower and a cup of tea.” “There’s no way I’ll lay in my bed [unshowered] after commuting in London.” “Three times a week? Yuck.”

Us infrequent showerers are quite often regarded with suspicion. That does not only go for nature-loving, tent-dwelling hippies but also for low-showerer TikTok users and even celebrities. Last month, British TV presenter Jonathan Ross caused headlines by stating that he sometimes washes less than once a week, and in 2023, actor America Ferrera astonished her fellow Barbie castmates in an interview when admitting that she occasionally skips the shower.

In 2021, a mini furore broke out when actor Ashton Kutcher horrified commentators with his routine of washing his “armpits and crotch daily and nothing else ever”, and fellow actor Jake Gyllenhaal said he believed bathing was at times “less necessary” (only to later claim he had been sarcastic). As other celebs chimed in, the compounded upset became so great that actors Jason Momoa and The Rock soon had to clarify that they themselves shower a lot.

 

I’m not alone in [not showering every day] – what I am alone in is being bravely willing to talk about it – Donnachadh McCarthy

 

But while frequent washing of hands is key for stopping the spread of germs, according to most medics there is no inherent physical health benefit to the daily shower. In fact, it can even be bad for you by drying out your skin and undermining your immune system. Still, studies indicate that more than half of Americans and Brits shower every day. Is it time to scale back?

Toby Madden
Environmentalist Donnachadh McCarthy is an infrequent showerer and has a rain harvester in his garden (Credit: Toby Madden)
Finding someone willing to go on the record about their lack of showering is not easy. In 2015, chemist David Whitlock made headlines with the announcement that he had not showered for 12 years. Instead, he sprayed himself with good bacteria, and even started a skincare brand based on the philosophy. The year after, physician James Hamblin wrote about how he stopped showering, too.

 

In 2020, when his book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less came out, he told the BBC: “I have a smell to me, and my wife says it’s just, like, identifiable. But she likes it. Other people say it’s not bad.” When I email him for an interview, mentioning my own thrice-a-week shower habits, he says he is too busy to chat, but adds: “Tell anyone who mocks you that they are betraying profound ignorance of the skin microbiome, and then walk away.”

Finally, I find environmentalist Donnachadh McCarthy. “I’m not alone in [not showering every day],” he tells me. “What I am alone in is being bravely willing to talk about it.”

Eight years ago, McCarthy wrote an article for the Guardian about his – then – weekly showers, complemented with sink washes. Coming out as an infrequent showerer was scary, he says, because he knew he would get a flood of abuse and ridicule. But after the piece was published, people whispered in his ear that they did the same as him.

 

Toby Madden
McCarthy’s home is equipped with solar-thermal hot water facilities (Credit: Toby Madden)
Until sustaining an injury, McCarthy was a professional ballet dancer with average shower habits. After spending two weeks with the indigenous Yanomami people in the Amazon rainforest, he determined to do his bit for the environment, installing a rainwater harvester and solar thermal hot water facilities into his London house, and tracking his water use. Over the following years, he started showering less and less.

These days, it’s around once a month. He sink washes daily, using a cloth to clean his entire body, and shaves using one cup of water. Nobody says that he smells.

“If you go to an old building, in the bedrooms you’ll see these lovely wooden tables with bowls sunk into them,” he says. “People used water from the bowls, and had a face cloth for the face and body. … Obviously, having running water is a huge positive. But it means you use much more of it.”

 

‘Performative’ showering

Our passion for the daily soap-and-water rebirth is also a surprisingly infrequent focus of academic interest. So much so that a report from 2005 is seemingly still a benchmark in shower research circles. It is common in Britain to shower once or sometimes twice a day, the report states. For many, this has “become such a normal routine that it is socially and physically uncomfortable to wash any less often”.

Dale Southerton, Professor of Sociology of Consumption at the University of Bristol, is one of the co-authors. “We wash our bodies so much more than we did in the past,” he tells the BBC. The change has mostly come about over the past 100 years, and it was not planned. In fact, it seems to have happened almost by accident.

 

The social contract aspect of frequent showering becomes evident when we put ourselves in environments like trekking holidays or music festivals.

 

Traditionally, people cleaned themselves by taking baths. The culture around bathing is rich – from the taking of healing waters in a spa town to the more modern relaxation in a bubble bath with a glass of wine or cup of tea and a book. (Which of showering or bathing requires less water, and is cheaper and more environmentally friendly, depends on the duration of the shower. And while some say a shower is more hygienic since the dirt is flushed away, others indicate the difference is too small to matter.)

Alamy
In previous centuries a water jug and bowl were used for washing – now, showering daily has become normalised (Credit: Alamy)
In the 1950s, says Southerton, Brits got access to running water in bathrooms. Soon, a new invention followed: A hose attached to the taps, topped with a plastic sieve – a showerhead. Today, many houses are built, and student halls rebuilt, so that each room has an en-suite.

“If you’ve only got one shower for a family of five, that’s a disincentive to shower,” Southerton explains. “But if you just jump out of bed and walk into your own private shower…” The sheer availability of showers – once installed to make it easier for us to keep clean – now means we shower more.

 

The humble shower has also attained new meaning. During the 1900s, a burgeoning advertising business attached new symbolism to our bathrooms. The shower, says Southerton, was marketed as a tool for saving time, but also for reinvigoration. Around 1970, shower ads consisted of simple drawings of a bath with a shower head, but by the 1980s, the images were always of a woman, relaxing and surrounded by steam.

Showering had become a leisure activity. It also helps us change context. We switch a lot between roles: the office worker, the tennis player, the parent, the friend meeting for dinner. Showering is a threshold activity. The shower cubicle is a portal that transforms us from one persona to another.

“If you go 100 years back, we didn’t shower every day, because the shower was not a normal thing to have,” Professor Kristen Gram-Hanssen from the Department of the Build Environment of Aalborg University in Denmark, tells me. “We don’t shower because of health. We shower because it’s a normal thing to do.”

The social contract aspect of frequent showering becomes evident when we put ourselves in environments like trekking holidays or music festivals, she says. There, different norms come into play, and suddenly it is okay to shower less.

Getty Images
At music festivals, frequent showering is not a social expectation 

What does the future hold? Will we all soon avoid the shower cubicle? Not likely. The academics do not see any significant trend of people showering less for environmental reasons. “This isn’t the story of how things creep up and creep up, and then we all say: ‘Oh, that was a bad idea! Let’s stop’,” says Southerton. “You can’t unwind the clock. The norms of showering are now embedded in our society.”

It seems my less-than-daily showers will continue to stand out to some. I take heart from McCarthy. “I do think a lot of the showering is performative,” he says. “Why are we washing? Mostly because we’re afraid somebody else will tell us that we’re smelling… I faced that fear, and I live.”

 

 

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