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January 31, 2015
By Joseph Strongoli, Contributing Columnist
Bathing has become a daily habit for most Americans, It is a luxury we
can afford to take advantage of, and perhaps indulgently so. Bathing
brings many health benefits, such as stress relief, and Cleanliness is,
after all, as they say, next to Godliness. Bathing is of course good
practice, and with our modern understanding of epidemiology and
hygiene, it has thankfully become entrenched in our modern daily
According to a survey conducted on yougov.com, 63% of men and
53% of women bathe every single day in the U.S. , and more people
actually bathe twice a day than those who only bathe once a week. But
when does clean become too clean? Are there any negative side-effects
to bathing too much?
The Skin You’re In
The part of the body most affected by bathing is naturally the skin.
According to the CDC, the average adult has a skin area of around 1.75
The superficial part of the skin, called the epidermis, consists of 5
The outermost later, called the stratum corneum, is made up of dead
skin cells called corneocytes or squames, which link together to make
up the tough, leathery layer of keratin mixed with lipids. This outermost
layer of skin is like a wall of bricks, where the squames are the bricks
and the lipids are the mortar. It serves as our body’s first line of
defense from the elements. 15 layers in total make up the strateum
corneum, and it gets completely replaced every two weeks: a new layer
is formed approximately daily, and the old ones slough off in the form
of 10^7 skin particles disseminated into the air each day.
This outer layer is important in maintaining the hydration, pliability, and
barrier effectiveness of the skin in general. And although it is tough,
protecting us from germs and microbes, extreme heat and cold, UV
rays, and dangerous substances, it too is susceptible to abuse. One
such abuse is showering too often. These are the top 7 dangers of
pampering too much.
1. Don’t Stir the Hornet’s Nest
Contrary to popular belief, showering might actually make things
dirtier, not cleaner.
But popular belief doesn’t always pay attention to the actual science:
studies since the 1965 landmark report by Dr. Speers et al., at St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and backed up by a 1986 study led
by Dr. Hall at the Occupational Medicine and Hygiene Laboratories in
London, have demonstrated that showering and bathing increase the
dispersal of skin bacteria into the air and the ambient environment up
to 17-fold, mostly through the diffusion and dissemination of
microcolonies on the skin’s surface.
The result is contamination of not only the general vicinity, but also of
the surrounding squamous cells: showering may spread bacteria from
infected areas to other parts of the skin that were previously bacteria
free. In fact, these studies initiated a counter-intuitive change in
practice among surgical personnel: showering immediately before
entering the operating room is now generally discouraged.
2. Skin pH
The acidic pH levels of the skin are important in antibacterial activity.
Over-washing the skin can lead to an increase in pH, or a decline in
acidity. A 1989 study by Dr. Maki at the University of Wisconsin Medical
School found that pH increased from 0.6 units to 1.8 after washing
with plain soap for 1 to 2 minutes. The pH levels did not return to
baseline for nearly 2 hours, effectively meaning that the skin’s defenses
were lowered for 2 hours after being washed! Some soaps are
associated with long-term changes in skin pH and reduction of fatty
3. Skin Damage
Water retention, humidity, pH, intracellular lipids, and shedding rates all
help to maintain the protective barrier properties of the skin. When the
barrier is compromised by over-scrubbing or chemical exposure, skin
desiccation, irritation, and cracking, may result.
A 1995 study by Dr. Grunewald et al., at the Karlsruhe Municipal
Hospital in Germany of the effect on the skin of repeated use of two
washing solutions, found that all skin function tests, including stratum
corneum capacitative resistance, lipids, transepidermal water loss, pH,
laser Doppler flow, and skin reddening were notably altered after a
single wash. After 1 week, further damage was reported.
A 1994 study by Dr. KP Wilhelm at the Medical University of Lubeck in
Germany, of skin reactions to three different active ingredients found in
soaps, found that over-exposure led to damage that lasted for several
days, and complete skin repair was not attained for 17 days. This
condition is associated with frequent handwashing, and is an
occupational risk for health-care professionals. Over-bathing can have
the same result: irritated, inflamed rashes on the skin due to over-
exposure to chemicals and over-drying.
4. Chronic Skin Conditions
Soaps and detergents have been shown to be some of the most
harmful of all substances routinely applied to skin; each time the skin is
washed, it undergoes profound changes.
Long-term over-exposure to soap can lead to conditions such as
chronic damage, dermatitis, rosacea and eczema and changes in skin
In a 1997 study at the Georgetown University School of Nursing of
health-care professionals who frequently bathed and hand-washed, Dr.
E. Larson found that irritant contact dermatitis had a prevalence of up
to 45%; the prevalence of damaged skin on the hands of 410 nurses
was 26% in one survey, and 86% of nurses reported having problems
at some time.
5. Damaged Skin leads to Increased Risk of Infection
Damaged skin loses its ability to fight off infection, and thus more often
harbors increased numbers of pathogens. Furthermore, washing
damaged skin is less effective in reducing bacteria than washing normal
skin, and a 1980 study by Dr. MF Parry et al found the number of
organisms shed from damaged skin are usually higher than from
A 1977 study by Dr. J. Ojajarvi at the University of Helsinki found that
nurses with damaged hands due to over-washing were twice as likely
to be colonized with S. hominis, S. aureus, gram-negative bacteria,
enterococci, and Candida spp.
6. Mutant Bacteria
Many soaps contain antimicrobial products. While these are more effect
in reducing pathogens on the skin, there is concern that the over-use
of these agents will lead to the emergence of bacteria resistant to
antiseptics. A 2009 study at the Jordan University of Science and
Technology led by Dr. HN Tumah highlighted this risk, and found that
bacterial spores are among the most resistant types of bacteria,
followed by mycobacteria, Gram-negative bacteria, then Gram-positive
7. Hair Damage
Hot water and over exposure to shampoo can dry your hair out,
making the fibers thinner, brittle, and frayed. Furthermore, harsh
chemicals such as lauryl sulfates can do damage. The purpose of
shampooing hair is to remove sebum, a natural oil produced by the
scalp. But this oil has protective qualities over hair fibers, as it helps
them to retain moisture and protects them from the elements.
Removing this oil too often can leave your hair exposed to the
elements: a 2010 study led by Dr. Zoe Draelos at the Duke University
School of Medicine found that hair devoid of all sebum is harsh, rough,
dull, subject to static electricity, and needs detangling.
So we’ve seen the dangers of bathing too much; over-doing it disrupts
our skin’s ecology and it’s ability to maintain a healthy chemical and
physical balance, thus impeding it’s performance in important functions.
It can also damage our hair. But the question becomes, then how much
should we actually bathe? According to experts, the answer is: it
depends. Different routines require different habits, but the key here is
balance and moderation. Dr. Elaine Larson of Columbia University says
that people who ride the subway or frequent the gym, i.e. those who
come into contact with a lot of foreign pathogens in unclean public
places, may consider showering once a day. But that should represent
the absolute maximum, and those who have less dirt in their daily
routines should give their body a break and consider every other day
or 3 times a week..
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