Did you shower this morning? Yeah?
Ok, I confess, I showered this morning too. But I feel pretty weird about it.
That's because of surprisingly compelling argument that regular showers — AKA the harsh, scalding scour of essential oils and organisms from your skin — is bad for your health, your scent, and the balance of life on your body.
But it's a difficult subject to write about, because there isn't a body of research to point to that can tell you exactly how often you should cleanse yourself, or with what methods. In fact, this posed a problem for even writing this article; the original premise, a clear answer to the question "How often should I shower?" just does not appear in any of the available research.
What does exist is a growing body of evidence to suggest that our shampoo-scrubbed lifestyles, along with a number of other factors, are damaging a complex system science does not yet fully understand: the human microbiome.
Showering too much can mess with your skin, and even the way your body functions
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria, archeae, viruses, and other microbes that live in and on your body. We know that these little foreign critters are deeply important to your health. Without them, your immune system, digestion, and even your heart would lose function or fail entirely.
It might make sense to understand the microbiome as a parallel and complementary organ system intertwined with the bulkier bags of wet tissue we typically understand to make up the human machine.
But researchers say the state of the science only offers a small slice of the full picture of the role our microbiomes play in our lives.
(Part of the problem? There's little in the way of a focused effort to fund research into the subject, with grant structures siloing microbiome investigations into other, narrower specialties. The result is that it's difficult for interested scientists to launch coordinated, multi-disciplinary studies.)
There's compelling indirect evidence to suggest that showering damages your microbiome on your skin, which in turn damages your skin health.
At the broadest level, it's fairly clear that indoor, urbanized and sterilized (crudely: Westernized) living leaves people with less complex and robust microbiomes.
A study of the people of Yanomami village in the Amazon, who had "no documented previous contact with Western people" found their skin, mouths, and feces hosted the richest complement of bacteria in any human population examined until that point — a complement that included antibiotic-resistant species, despite no known contact with antibiotics.
And it's well established that a shower with shampoo and soap strips your hair skin of much of its microbe complement, as well as necessary oils — which the cosmetic industry then attempts to replace, using conditioners and moisturizers.
What to do about the stink
All those dots in a row sure look like an arrow pointing toward the conclusion that showering too often is a bad idea for your health. But there's no published research that I'm aware of drawing a clear, bright line between them.
(If I've missed something, I expect I'll hear about it soon via all-caps notes in my inbox, and I'll update accordingly.)
Part of the problem may be that it's difficult to assemble a large enough body of subjects willing to skip showering for a long period of time to conduct a high-confidence controlled study. Instead, the published science on shower-skipping is mostly a stack stories of self-experimentation.
These stories, anecdotally at least, answer the most important question about shower-skipping: What to do about the stink?