Yet a growing number of people are setting out unwashed. They are proud to be less clean.
Frequency of soap-dodging varies.
For some people, alternate-day showering has become the norm. Others limit bathing to once a week, or less. Surveys suggest that up to 41% of men, and 33% of women, don’t shower daily, and 12% have ‘a proper wash’ twice weekly.
Washing of hair is also declining. There have been cases of reputed celebrity shampoo-shunners including Audrey Hepburn who apparently washed her hair once a week, and Jessica Simpson, while Prince Harry once said he didn’t wash his for two years. Boots the chemist is reporting a 45% rise in sales of dry shampoo in Britain and Ireland.
Why, though, are so many people eschewing cleanliness? There are claims that washing too often strips the body of natural oils, dries the skin, and wastes water. Some are forgoing washing because they can’t be bothered. Last year, a survey by the Global Hygiene Council found that 58% of men regularly missed their morning shower because they were too rushed or too lazy.
One woman I know, who is in her 40s, says she gave up showers before the school run because she realised she “wasn’t exactly dirty”.
She now showers and shampoos only after her three, weekly gym sessions and says the condition of her hair and skin has “improved immeasurably”.
The argument is that we have adopted the culture of squeaky clean without question and without evidence. It is relatively recently that daily showering and bathing became ingrained in our thinking. In 1951, two fifths of homes in Ireland were still without a bath or shower.
Professor Elizabeth Shove, a sociology researcher at the University of Lancaster, who has studied the culture of showering in the UK and Ireland, says that less than a century ago, a weekly bath was considered adequate and even our grandparents thought it acceptable to wash thoroughly a couple of times a week.
“Now, we think nothing of showering once, twice or even three times a day, before and after work, or going out and after the gym,” says Professor Shove.
“It is something that has embedded itself in our routine and become an essential, not an optional, thing to do.”
Is showering doing any harm? There is mounting environmental opposition to over-washing.
Professor Shove’s studies have shown that a seven-minute power shower uses more water than a bath. Industry forecasts predict a five-fold rise in the total amount of water that will be used for showering between now and 2021.
In Ireland, typical water use is 37,000 gallons a year per person — between two and three times the average for the rest of Europe.
Never has the financial incentive been higher for cutting back on the amount of water we use.
As the Government plans to raise €500m by charging for domestic water, 1.35m homeowners have been warned they can expect to be hit with water bills averaging €370 next year.
Skipping that daily shower might suddenly seem a possibility for more of us.
There are other concerns about daily showering, which might encourage us to do it less. Dermatologists fear that regular washing is stripping the skin of essential oils that keep it supple and moisturised. Every time you take a shower, you’re sloughing away at your skin’s structure. Soap and hot water dissolve the lipids in the skin, and scrubbing with a flannel or loofah only hastens the process. The more showers you take, the more frequent this damage and the less time your skin has to repair itself through natural-oil reproduction.
Dermatologists say that daily dousing with hot water, combined with harsh soaps, can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.
The same is true of hair, which becomes dry, brittle and lank when repeatedly washed. Too much soap strips hair of sebum, the oily substance secreted by our scalps to ward off bacteria. As a consequence, we produce more sebum, resulting in a lank and greasy look. We shampoo and condition again to rectify it, unwittingly compounding the problem.
There is also evidence that over-diligent personal hygiene destroys beneficial bacteria on the skin that help the body to ward off infection. Studies at the University of California have shown that, like the gut, our skin harbours ‘good’ bacteria that help skin cells to produce their own antibiotics. By repeatedly washing and scrubbing ourselves, we are flushing these down the plughole.
“A vigorous, daily shower would definitely disturb the natural bug flora of the skin, as well as skin oils,” says John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary’s school of medicine and dentistry, in London.
While Professor Oxford recommends frequent hand-washing to minimise the spread of harmful bacteria, he is more lenient about showering.
“As long as people wash their hands often enough and pay attention to the area of the body below the belt, I do feel showering or bathing every other day would do no harm,” Professor Oxford says.
“Even twice a week would not be a problem, if people used a bidet daily, as most infectious bugs hang around our lower halves.”
Professor Shove says it is time to challenge those norms, to remind ourselves that unless we work in grime and slime, most of us don’t need a daily scrub down.
We lessen the effects of showers — on our body and on the environment — by stepping under them for three minutes instead of ten, by reducing water temperature, and by avoiding harsh soaps and gels that exacerbate skin dryness. But, really, Professor Shove says, ask yourself whether you need to do it before you turn on and step under.
“We are pouring so many litres of water over ourselves to remove just a few specks of dirt,” she says. “It is an extraordinary thing to do.”