Can you ever take too many showers? Stylist investigates the skin-improving claims of the ‘cleansing reduction’ movement.
Festivals, camping and lazy weekends. All times when it’s perfectly acceptable to skip getting up close and personal with a bar of soap. The rest of the time? Well, we’ve all heard the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Yet right now, the ritual of our daily morning shower is being challenged by the rise of a new movement – that of ‘cleansing reduction’.
According to a study* around 80% of British women no longer shower every day, with proponents arguing that washing less has a whole host of benefits, not least softer, less agitated skin. And rather than being a dirty little secret, cleansing reduction fans are shouting about it, with A-listers such as Julia Roberts and Naya Rivera reportedly cutting down daily bathing. Vivienne Westwood says she’s reduced her washing to just once a week. Her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, to once a month.
A small admission here – I am (inadvertently) one of them, having showered every other day for as long as I can remember. Although less a considered strategy and more a symptom of a hard-to-break snooze habit, until recently, this innocuous admission was met – almost exclusively – by faint disgust, akin to admitting to fancying Jeremy Clarkson or something. Yet even I’d agree that there’s nothing so invigorating as rinsing the day away with lashings of minty bubbles, or the sensation of squeaky clean skin, renewed by a blast of steam and hot water. So, I was fascinated to explore whether this new trend had any truth behind it that would legitimise my lazy ways…
One of the main arguments for cleansing reduction is how the skin reacts to over scrupulous cleanliness. For many people, washing just once a day has become the bare minimum – a morning shower to wake you up, another after that lunch-time spinning session, and perhaps a third before bed after a grimy commute. According to a study by the University of California, though, excess washing (defined as more than once a day) can be bad for your skin and health.
“The skin has a natural protective barrier called the acid mantle – and washing excessively changes how effective it is,” says Dr Nick Lowe, consultant dermatologist and professor of dermatology at UCLA in Los Angeles. This film covers our entire body, and is made up of a mixture of sweat, oils and dead skin cells. And, as the name might suggest, it has a slightly aidic pH. The acidity helps to neutralise contaminations, and the scale-like structure of the mantle waterproofs the skin – holding the cells tightly together so that it’s harder for viruses to penetrate and moisture to escape.
“The problem is that we’re misusing soaps and bathing products. These all tend to have an alkaline pH, which is good for skin, but if used excessively or more than twice a day, they have the potential to damage the acid mantle,” says Dr Lowe. And while we might feel squeaky clean, that tight feeling after washing with certain cleansers is actually your acid mantle being stripped of its goodness. With this protective layer damaged, the pH of the skin rises – it effectively becomes more alkaline and less able to keep out the bad bacteria.
“Stripping the acid mantle can affect our microbiome, which lives just beneath it,” agrees dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams, medical director at Eudelo dermatology and skin clinic. Throughout our lives the surface of our skin is host to tens of thousands of bacterial cultures, yeasts and mites. “The good bacteria prefers the slightly acidic pH of our skin – while the pathological [meaning ‘bad’] bacteria generally prefers a higher, more alkaline pH.” So, when the balance of all the cultures, fungi and yeasts is maintained, we have healthy skin that looks after itself and doesn’t need too much attention. But when one dominates, we begin to suffer from skin diseases like dermatitis. In fact, according to a 2015 study, hospital workers were actually causing themselves dermatitis from their frequent hand-washing.
It’s a compelling argument, and I find myself hesitating before showering as usual on Tuesday morning, eventually deciding I’ll see how I feel in the evening. The towel remains on the radiator. The next day, I speak to Jessica Smith, a trends researcher at The Future Laboratory – are we really becoming Generation Soap Dodger? She puts the increased interest in cleansing reduction down to what she calls ‘skin-tellectuals’, saying that people are becoming savvier about how healthy our skin is, and recognising that some ‘dirt’ can be good. She cites cult US brand Mother Dirt, as a case in point. Already making waves in the UK after launching on contentbeautywellbeing.com last month, the range consists of face, body and hair products that restore and maintain the good bacteria on our skin and hair thanks to gentle ingredients that mimic the skin’s natural barrier.
As company president Jasmina Aganovic tells me later: “The brand was formulated to restore and maintain good bacteria because we’re stripping it from overshowering. We specifically focus on a type of bacteria (ammoniaoxidizing bacteria), that once existed on our skin but has been removed with modern hygiene and being ‘too’ clean.” Rebalancing that bacteria, she argues, will leave us with less oiliness, dryness and skin sensitivity – all appealing when more of us have skin allergies than ever before.
But cleansing reduction isn’t for everyone. In fact, Lowe is eager to point out that some skin conditions – particularly a group of eczemas known as seborrhoeic or atopic dermatitis that affect the face, head and chest – may be made worse by not showering as it allows the yeasts which control them to overrun. Nevertheless, I’m now three days unclean, and I have to admit, my skin is feeling soft, I’ve managed to ward off whiffs with a liberal swipe of deodorant and wipes, and people are still willingly sitting next to me on the bus. Of course, there’s another motivator behind the cleansing reduction trend: our planet.
“For years we’ve tried to take a more eco approach to what we eat,” say Smith. “And the mentality is now starting to translate to beauty and grooming too.” That starts with considering our water usage. The average shower uses 62 litres of hot water, compared with an average bath’s 80 litres.
Plus, water is the most widely used ingredient in the cosmetics industry (it makes up around 70% of most products and creams) and Smith points out, “The demand for it seems to be outstripping supply.” As our eco-awareness increases so does the desire to live a more ‘natural’ life, that doesn’t impact on our natural resources. Perhaps that’s one reason why for the second year in a row, according to market insights company Mintel, the value of shower and bath products has fallen by 3.6% over the past two years.
“I’m doing it to save the planet,” also makes a noble statement to bat away the wrinkled-nose distaste of friends when I tell them I haven’t showered now in six days. Yet even though I caved in on day five and washed my hair in the shower without actually getting in, it still prompts replies like, “Yeah, but you smell like old bed sheets.” And it’s true – I find myself standing a little further away from other people, just in case they catch a whiff. By now, I’m craving that soapysmelling, just-showered freshness after a long day, or as a signifier to ‘wake up’. For thousands of years we have washed and cleaned our bodies as part of a societal diktat. It’s a marker of being on top of things. But right now, that’s absolutely not how I feel. And I do think part of that is because I haven’t had the stress-free effects from showering with my favourite Aesop Geranium Leaf Body Cleanser, and its spa-like heady herbal lather.
So, should I really feel conflicted about resuming my usual showering habit? I consult a few more dermatologists, all of whom reiterate Dr Lowe’s original point, that despite the growing trend, if you’re only showering once a day, there’s no cause for concern about your skin’s health. What really matters, they tell me, is how we shower. Dr Lowe recommends nothing more than five minutes with lukewarm water as being exposed to hot water for prolonged periods breaks down the skin’s oil barrier, allowing the spaces between skin cells to expand and moisture to leak out. And if you’re worried about your acid mantle and microbiome, just be more mindful about where you’re applying products. “Don’t soap the arms, legs or tummy, there’s no need,” adds Williams. “It’s better to just rinse those areas with water and only clean under the arms, on the feet and around the genital area where we tend to sweat most.” Use a gentle body wash like Sanex Dermo Hypoallergenic shower gel, which contains a minimal amount of ingredients and keeps the skin pH balanced. And if your job or lifestyle means you need to frequently wash your hands, apply a rich cream like Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve, to restore them.
So, is once-weekly bathing something I’ll be adopting? Probably not. My skin is softer, particularly at the knees and elbows, and I’ve not had any outbreaks. In fact, the general quality of my skin is resolutely the same – which I’m surprised by. But despite my claims to odourlessness, I do smell. And I don’t feel so, well, ‘efficient’ is the only way I can put it. But I have changed my habits – I’ve stocked up on pH balanced Dermalogica Conditioning Body Wash, £39.50, and it’s a strict five minutes for me now, to ease some of that eco guilt. Turns out there’s more than one way to feel squeaky clean.