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Why you should be washing every day, according to a dermatologist

As the great unwashed of Hollywood share their bathing habits (or lack thereof), we speak to an expert to find out how often we should be showering

How often should you be washing? The question has become a hot topic around the internet after a number of celebrities decided to reveal, perhaps unwisely, how infrequently they are bathing. 

It all started when Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher said on Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert that they only bathe their two young children when “you can see the dirt on them”. Kutcher added that he only personally uses soap on his armpits and crotch daily “and nothing else ever”. Shepard was in agreement, arguing it was “insane” to wash too frequently. “You should not be getting rid of all the natural oil on your skin with a bar of soap every day,” he said.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Jake Gyllenhaal, who joined the growing chorus of the great unwashed in an interview with Vanity Fair last week in which he said that “more and more” he was finding bathing to be “less necessary”. “I do also think that there’s a whole world of not bathing that is also really helpful for skin maintenance, and we naturally clean ourselves,” he said.

As you can imagine, these comments caused a strong reaction online with people on Twitter variously labelling the views ‘bizarre’, ‘disgusting’, and ‘flat out gross’, among other things. Dwayne Johnson chipped in to say he was “the opposite of a ‘not washing themselves’ celeb” and showered three times a day while Jason Momoa said quote, “I shower, trust me, I’m Aquaman, I’m in fucking water, trust me.”

Others also pointed out that there was a privilege in who gets to speak out about not being “clean”. It may not have escaped your notice that all the “not washing themselves celebrities”, as Johnson put it, are white – it certainly didn’t escape Roxane Gray who weighed in to say, “I am genuinely shocked by how rarely (some) white people bathe themselves and their children. And how comfortable they are discussing it. During a pandemic”.

She continued: “Lots of groups of people can’t afford to do all these weird once a week, bird bath things you are all opining about. Black people, poor people, immigrants, fat people have all been labeled as “dirty” by society and I assure you, we can’t just skip around unwashed. But do you!”

So how often should you be showering and what are the best bathing habits to adopt? Dr Derrick Phillips, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, says that washing as part of your daily routine is very important. How many times a day you shower, depends on your lifestyle, environment, and skin factors. “Those with more active lifestyles may wish to wash after physical exercise to prevent malodour associated with dried sweat and to reinforce the perception of cleanliness,” he says. “Those living in hot, humid countries may wash multiple times in the day for the same reasons.” 

Washing is important, he continues, because it encourages the shedding of dead cells from the top layer of the skin (the stratum corneum), while also physically removing dirt, and preventing malodour. Anecdotally, washing may also increase alertness and help to reduce stress.

Dr Phillips does, however, support Shepard’s claim that if you are too enthusiastic about bathing it could be damaging to the health of your skin. “Frequent washing, particularly with soaps, strips natural oils from the skin barrier and increases water loss. This leads to drying of the skin and irritation,” he says. This can be a problem particularly for people with skin conditions such as eczema where the skin barrier is already impaired. “Any perceived benefit of cleanliness must be counterbalanced against the risk of drying, irritation, and dermatitis from washing too frequently.”

This risk of dryness and irritation also increases as the temperature of the water does. Dr Phillips therefore recommends that you shower with warm water, rather than hot, and keep the length of your shower between five to 15 minutes. Try to avoid harsh alkaline soaps which will dry out the skin and remember to apply emollients (especially those containing ceramides) after your shower as they help to restore the lipids lost during the washing process and repair the skin barrier.

People with skin conditions such as eczema which leads to naturally dry and sensitive skin are even more susceptible to the drying effect of soaps and hot showers, says Dr Phillips who recommends emollient soap substitutes which are specially formulated to clean the skin without causing drying or irritation. “Regular use of an appropriate moisturiser after washing and at regular intervals throughout the day, will also help to maintain hydration of the skin and improve symptoms,” he says. “Anecdotally, many patients with itchy skin conditions have described a therapeutic benefit from cold showers.” 

Lastly, when it comes to where you should be washing, unlike Kutcher, Dr Phillips suggests soaping up your skin and hair, as well as external genitalia. He strongly advises against internal washing or douching (the practice of rinsing out the vagina with a stream of water or soap), however, which can upset the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina and is a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis, an inflammatory condition with characteristic malodour. Gwyneth Paltrow take note!