Is a daily shower too much for your skin?

Before indoor plumbing and hot water heaters became commonplace in American homes, frequent bathing was a bit of an ordeal. Water had to be fetched and heated over a fire before a person could so much as dip a toe into the bathtub. The process was inconvenient (and still is in many developing nations), and all the members of a family generally used the same water to bathe and carry out other chores, like washing laundry, before it was tossed out.

We have Norwegian engineer Edwin Ruud to thank for inventing the home water heater in 1889. In Ruud's design, a switch ignited the gas heaters when a faucet was turned on in the house, producing hot water on demand [source: Ruud]. The same era saw the introduction of a slew of shower designs. A number of competing showers offered a variety of spray settings and directions, but most had unfortunate closed-system designs; the water that came from the showerhead went into the drain to be recirculated back up to the showerhead once more.

The advent of indoor plumbing would tie these inventions together. The Tremont in Boston became the first hotel in the world to feature indoor plumbing in 1829. Architect Isaiah Rogers would design the prototype for all indoor plumbing schemes to follow [source: Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine]. By the end of World War I, modern bathrooms were common in middle-class homes; by the 1930s, rural Americans had come to know the joy of daily showering [sources: McKendree, Reinhardt and Ganzel].

There's something luxurious about even a mundane morning shower. Anyone who's ever taken a warm shower at the end of a tough day knows the calming influence it exerts. Science backs up these bathers' collective anecdotal evidence. In fact, one Japanese study examined the prevalence of hormones found in saliva that serve as stress indicators. It showed a significant decrease in stress levels following bathing [source: Toda, et al].

Since we have indoor plumbing leading to showers that release hot water onto our stressed shoulders, it seems like a waste not to shower frequently. How much is too much, though, when it comes to the health of your skin? You likely shower every day, but is that more often than you should?

 

Before you turn that knob, there are some things you should know about showering and skin health.

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How much should you shower?

It's conventional wisdom that the more you shower, the cleaner you are. Lathering up with a healthy dose of soap and washing it off with a nice stream of hot water should kill any germs on your skin. Studies by medical researchers have shown quite the opposite, however. Using plain old soap (as opposed to antimicrobial or antibacterial soap) doesn't kill skin-borne bacteria. It actually disturbs microcolonies of skin flora and fauna, transferring them to the surrounding environment -- like your shower, for instance. For this reason, surgical teams and patients are generally restricted from showering immediately before entering an operating room [source: Larson].

Still, showering regularly is recommended for good personal hygiene. Showering too much, however, can have a potentially damaging effect on your skin.

The outermost layer of your skin's surface (called the stratum corneum or horny layer) is a barrier made of hardened, dead skin cells. These skin cells offer protection for the underlying layers of living, healthy cells. The horny layer is more than just dead skin cells; it's held together by lipids, which are fatty compounds that actually help maintain moisture in your skin.

Anytime you take a shower -- especially a hot one -- with soap and a scrubbing device like a washcloth or a loofah, you're undermining the integrity of your skin's horny layer. The soap and the hot water dissolve the lipids in the skin and scrubbing only hastens the process. The more showers you take, the more frequently this damage takes place and the less time your skin has to repair itself through natural oil production. What's more, the horny layer of your skin can be sloughed off by scrubbing, exposing the delicate skin cells beneath. The result of showering too frequently is generally dry, irritated and cracked skin.

Another problem related to showering too often is the use of a towel to dry off. While rubbing yourself dry with a towel is common practice, it's also a damaging one for your skin. Air drying is the optimal way to dry off following a shower, but if you don't have time to wait for evaporation or don't like tracking bathwater throughout your house, you can still use a towel. Just make sure it's a soft one and use a gentle patting motion to absorb water.

The chemistry of each person's skin is different, so showering ever day may not be as damaging to some people as it would be to others. Still, you might want to skip a shower every once in a while. You can also protect your skin by using soft soaps with warm instead of hot water. To top it off, apply a moisturizer after each shower. We all love feeling clean, but we also have to strike a balance between clean skin and healthy skin.

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Sources

  • ARA Content. "An ancient luxury becomes a modern morning necessity: a look at the cascading evolution of the shower." Accessed August 25, 2009.http://www.dezignare.com/newsletter/shower.html
  • Larson, Elaine. "Hygiene of the skin: When is clean too clean?" Centers for Disease Control. December 8, 2001. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol7no2/larson.htm
  • McKendree, Sue Clark. "The tabasco water heater and hot water in the Biltmore House." Learn NC. Accessed August 25, 2009.http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/biltmore-techtour/1311
  • O'Keefe's Company. "Skin care and health." Accessed August 25, 2009.http://www.okeeffescompany.com/healthy_skin.html
  • Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine. "The history of indoor plumbing in the United States." July 1987. http://www.plumbingworld.com/historyamerica.html
  • Reinhardt, Claudia and Ganzel, Bill. "Indoor plumbing." Living History Farm. 2003. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_13.html
  • Ruud. "Edwin Ruud: inventor of the first automatic gas water heater." Accessed August 25, 2009. http://www.ruudtankless.com/content/tankless/ruud/aboutUs.shtml
  • Silva, Rudy. "Learn how to shower to keep your skin healthy." Health Guidance. Accessed August 25, 2009. http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/2395/1/Learn-How-to-Shower-To-Keep-Your-Skin-Healthy.html
  • Toda, Masahiro, et al. "Change in salivary physiological stress markers by spa bathing." Biomedical Research. February 2006.http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/biomedres/27/1/27_11/_article