When I switched to a new hairstylist in my early teens, the first thing she did was pick up a lock of my hair, tut, and tell me I needed to stop washing it every day. At the time, I thought that was totally weird, but now, 10 years later, "wash less frequently" is one of the most common pieces of body care advice I see, and it's generally not considered a gross thing to do. But whether it's OK not to shower every day seems to inspire a little more controversy.
According to recent research from the Genetic Science Centre at the University of Utah, there is evidence to suggest showering too regularly actually harms the human microbiome, wiping out the balanced ecosystem of (harmless, and even helpful) bacteria we carry on our bodies. If your response to that is "Science is good and all, but I like to be clean," remember there are loads of cultures around the world where showering daily isn't the norm. As for where the U.S. fits in on a global scale, a 2015 Euromonitor poll showed Americans are about average when it comes to how often we shower. We shower more often than folks from China, Japan, and England, but less often than people from Brazil and Colombia.
The Genetic Science Centre came to its conclusion by studying "an isolated village of Yanomami hunter-gatherers in the remote mountains of the Amazon jungle of Venezuela," according to Science Magazine. In the Yanomami people, who don't have access to washing facilities generally comparable to those in the U.S., researchers found a flourishing community of diverse and unusual microbes, both on people's skin and in their guts — including bacteria with "nearly 60 unique genes that could turn on and rally to fend off antibiotics," and bacteria that had "evolved an armory of methods to fight a wide range of toxins that threaten them."
The takeaway: When we shower every day, we erode some of the natural ecology of our bodies, and when those bacteria are instead allowed to develop a more stable habitat, they can do some pretty wacky — but good-for-us — stuff.
Of course, there are times when you should always shower, no matter when your last one was — like after the gym. If you work out and don't shower afterward, "perspiration left behind on your skin allows bacteria to proliferate, and that can lead to rashes and breakouts," Dr. Holly L. Phillips, a women’s health physician and medical contributor to CBS News, told Women's Health.
Rashes and breakouts can also be caused when you disrupt your body's microbiome too frequently, according to research coming out of the McDonnell Genome Institute. If that feels like a rock and a hard place, don't worry too much. It'll involve a little planning, but you can definitely plot your showering schedule around your workout schedule.
Just like with haircare routines, you should take into account your individual differences when it comes to planning out your showering routine. If you try showering less frequently and you end up uncomfortable or you notice some extra B.O. hanging around, hop back in the shower. If your skin is unhappy and you start developing zits from clogged pores, shower more frequently. Evidence says showering less frequently is better for us, but if you've been showering once a day all your life, your body is likely as used to the routine as you are.
While no one's suggesting you stop showering completely, James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic, took that plunge for all of us, and the results may surprise you. At first, he was "an oily, smelly beast," but as he continued the experiment, showering and using deodorant less and less frequently, his body evened out. He explained, "I mean, you don’t smell like rosewater or Axe Body Spray, but you don’t smell like B.O., either. You just smell like a person." By the end of his experiment and beyond, Hamblin stopped using deodorant altogether, doesn't use shampoo or body soap, and "almost never [gets] into a shower." He does, he noted, still regularly wash his hands.
You don't have to follow in Hamblin's admittedly extreme footsteps, but the evidence does suggest less frequent showering equals a healthier body microbiome, and that allowing our good ol' bacteria buddies to flourish is perfectly OK.