People sure feel strongly about their showering habits.
Don’t believe me? Do what I did and strike up a friendly conversation about personal hygiene. You’ll probably find that at least one member of your circle lives for their morning shower; another might even manage to make you feel disgusting for showering any less frequently than once a day. On the other end of the spectrum, there will be someone who’s proud to admit they only shower twice a week, willing to to explain exactly how they “trained” their hair to produce less oil so they could go longer between shampoos.
For others, like Kim Bongiorno, mom and writer, a shower is part of a ritual.
“I shower daily for both mental and physical health reasons,” she tells Urbo. “I have sensitive skin, allergies, and asthma. I also find the quiet, white noise aspect of showering very cathartic. If I’m really stressed, just standing in a warm shower soothes me.”
Erin Heger, on the other hand, has dealt with dry hair ever since she started coloring her hair and has cut back to showering once or twice a week. Her main motivation was to preserve her hair color as long as possible and to not spend loads of money on expensive shampoo.
“At first my hair was very greasy, and I had to wear it up if it was unwashed,” she admits. “Slowly over the course of a few months, I could go longer intervals without washing and my hair started to get fuller and less greasy”
Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle, showering every two or three days, just so long as I can grab a few minutes when my husband is home to watch our three young kids.
In the United States, Heger and I are actually well outside of the norm. As reported by GOOD, an international survey conducted by Euromonitor found that well over half of Americans shower once a day. In addition to finding the average shower frequency of Americans, this study found that a lot of variation exists across cultures when it comes to personal hygiene.
How often do people in other countries shower?
In my research for this article, I found a lot of anecdotes suggesting that Americans are the most obsessed with cleanliness…but no real data to back that up. The truth is, the personal hygiene of people in the United States is fairly average when compared to other cultures all over the world.
Although Japan reported below average showers—the average survey respondent showered five times a week—it appears their culture still places a high value on the ritual of the bath. YouTube user Rodi in Japan posts regular vlogs about Japanese culture, and in one 2017 video, he outlines the bathing habits of people living in Japan. Most Japanese people follow their daily shower with a soak in a hot tub, he said. One American blogger living as an expat in Japan told Refinery29 that a “relaxing bath” always comes after a shower.
Another country that appears to be really into cleanliness is Brazil, according to Katherine Ashenburg, PhD, author of The Dirt on Clean, a book that explores hygiene habits across cultures and throughout history.
In fact, Brazilians are ranked highest for number of showers per week in the Euromonitor survey, with 12 a week. They highly value personal hygiene and shower multiple times a day to deal with the intense heat they experience. Interestingly, this has become a point of controversy in the past, especially when Brazil faced a drought in 2015 and began asking citizens to cut back on their shower habits, according to a Fox News report.
Although only between 20 and 25 percent of people in China say they shower daily, according to research acquired by The Atlantic, the Euromonitor survey still found that they do it as often as five times a week. And countries that have long faced criticism for being unhygienic—mostly European countries—actually still report showering four to seven times a week.
Ashenburg observes that many Europeans see Americans as obsessed with cleanliness and think they’re being tricked into being over-hygienic by the advertising of soap manufacturers.
Why are Americans so obsessed with hygiene?
Well, they haven’t always been that way. According to Ashenburg, this obsession is fairly new, dating back to the mid-19th century.
In the Civil War, a lack of basic hygiene practices was a real problem, according to the Civil War Trust. In fact, disease, often caused by unsanitary living conditions and poor hygiene practices, was one of the main causes of death among soldiers on either side.
In response, the U.S. Sanitary Commission was formed in 1861, successfully saving many soldiers’ lives by helping ensure good hygiene and sanitation practices. After the war ended, these new practices were embraced as the right way to do things.
“Americans’ experience with hygiene in the Civil War convinced them that cleanliness prevented a lot of deaths in wartime and would do the same in peacetime,” explains Ashenburg.
From there, Ashenburg says, advertisers took the reins, feeding America’s growing obsession with cleanliness.
“Advertising was born, to a large extent, in the U.S., and they quickly started campaigns to convince Americans that by using lots of soap, they could become successful and attractive,” Ashenburg tells us. She also says plumbing developments in America made this new bathing obsession possible.
Are there downsides to being so dang clean?
There’s no real evidence that there are any benefits to showering frequently. It seems that the habit developed in hopes of preventing the spread of disease, but newer research suggests that too much showering does more harm good. The issue here is that there is good bacteria in and on our bodies called our microbiome. Showering frequently and using harsh cleansers to do so can strip our bodies of that beneficial bacteria.
“Physical problems include dry skin and showering or bathing off a protective layer of good germs …,” explains Ashenburg.
In addition to the physical problems, Ashenburg suggests that an obsession with hygiene in our culture can actually have a psychological impact on some, causing them to fixate on their hygiene more than is appropriate.
“We can never trust that we are ‘clean enough,’ [and we think] that our natural bodies are unattractive,” she says. “This leads to excessive washing, deodorizing, … perfuming, et cetera …”
Perhaps most serious is the issue of how frequent, long showers impact the environment. Your average shower head uses between two and five gallons of water per minute, making excessive showering a wasteful use of our resources. The average family uses much as 40 gallons of water a day simply by showering, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Do serious health risks lie in the shower?
Well, that depends on who you ask. While some are quick to point to studies that link certain self-care ingredients to cancer, official organizations aren’t so sure.
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that the exposure to certain phthalates—chemicals found in certain body washes and shampoos—is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), however, finds no association between common phthalates and health risk.
Parabens, another ingredient often used in personal hygiene products and cosmetics, have also been linked to breast cancer. New research in the Journal of Applied Toxicity indicates that exposure to parabens can cause an increase in breast cancer cells in the body. Yet the FDA, along with numerous studies, considers parabens to be non-harmful, especially in small amounts. No direct links between the parabens used in cosmetics and cancer have been established.
To be safe (or to sell more shampoo), many manufacturers are beginning to omit phthalates and parabens from their products.
How much should we really shower?
Deciding how much you should shower each week really depends on your lifestyle. If you work in a profession that is especially dirty or if you are very active, you might consider keeping up with your daily shower. Otherwise, a few showers per week is more than enough, according to Dee Glaser, MD, interim chair of the department of dermatology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
It’s helpful to know that while showering helps keep body odor at bay, it isn’t believed to offer much protection from disease. Instead, handwashing is the big contributor to avoiding the spread of disease.
“There are no benefits that I know of to handwashing less,” says Ashenburg. “It is the only part of the body the really needs to washed for health reasons, and it is a good preventer of getting disease and giving it the others.”
And regardless of how often we shower, we should tend to our dry skin. Showers should be followed up with a rich lotion. Glaser also recommends avoiding fragrances and choosing a body wash that uses words like “cleanser” or “moisturizing.”
If, like Bongiorno, you simply aren’t willing to sacrifice your shower ritual, make it a quick one and don’t turn up the water temperature too high.