Robin Harper, an administrative assistant at a Martha’s Vineyard preschool, grew up taking a shower every day.
“It’s what you did,” she said. But when the coronavirus pandemic kept her indoors and out of the public eye, she started showering once a week.
The new practice felt environmentally virtuous, practical, and liberating. And it stayed.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Ms. Harper, 43, who has returned to work. “I like showers. But it’s an off my plate thing. I am a mother. I work full time and there is one less thing to do. “
Parents have complained that their teenage children don’t take daily showers. After the UK media reported a YouGov poll found that 17 percent of Brits had given up daily showers during the pandemic, many Twitter users said they did the same.
Heather Whaley, a writer in Redding, Connecticut, said her shower use fell 20 percent over the past year.
After the pandemic forced her to lock her up, Ms. Whaley, 49, said she started thinking about why she showered every day.
“Do I? I want you to say.” Taking a shower was less a question of function than a question of doing something for myself that I enjoyed. “
Ms. Harper, who still uses deodorant and washes “the parts that need to be done” at the sink daily, said she was confident she was not offending anyone. Her 22-year-old daughter, who takes a demanding bath and shower twice a day, did not comment on her new hygiene habit. Still have the children in their school.
“The kids will tell you if you don’t smell good,” said Ms. Harper, “3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds will tell you the truth.”
Sanitation and upward mobility have changed everything
Daily showers are a fairly new phenomenon, said Donnachadh McCarthy, a London environmentalist and writer who grew up taking weekly baths.
“We had a bath once a week and washed at the sink the rest of the week – under our armpits and our private lives – and that was it,” said 61-year-old McCarthy.
As he got older, he showered every day. But after a visit to the Amazon jungle in 1992 exposed the ravages of overdevelopment, McCarthy said he pondered how his daily habits affect the environment and his own body.
“It’s not really good to wash with soap every day,” said Mr. McCarthy, who showered once a week.
Doctors and health experts have said that daily showers are unnecessary and even counterproductive. Washing with soap daily can rid the skin of its natural oils and make it feel dry, although doctors still recommend frequent hand washing.
The American obsession with cleaning began around the turn of the 20th century when people moved to cities after the Industrial Revolution, said Dr. James Hamblin, professor at Yale University and author of Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less. “
Cities were dirtier, making residents feel like they had to wash more often, said Dr. Hamblin, and soap making became more common. Indoor plumbing also improved, giving the middle class better access to running water.
To stand out from the crowd, wealthy people started investing in fancier soaps and shampoos and bathing more often, he said.
“It became a kind of arms race,” said Dr. Hamblin. “It was a token of wealth to look like you could bathe every day.”
Bathing less = better skin and a cleaner planet
Kelly Mieloch, 42, said she’d only showered “every few days” since the pandemic began.
What’s the point of showering every day if she rarely leaves home to run errands like taking her 6-year-old daughter to school?
“You don’t smell me – you don’t know what’s happening,” said Ms. Mieloch. “Most of the time, I don’t even wear a bra.”
In addition, she said her decision to quit daily showers helped her appearance.
“I just feel like my hair is better, my skin is better, and my face isn’t as dry,” said Ms. Mieloch, an Asheville, NC mortgage lender
Andrea Armstrong, an assistant professor of environmental science and studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., Said she was encouraged as more people rethink their daily shower.
An eight-minute shower uses up to 17 gallons of water, according to the Water Research Fund. Running water uses as much energy as running a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours for five minutes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And frequent washing means going through more plastic bottles and using more soap, which is often made from petroleum.
The individual decision to stop showering or bathing every day is an important decision at a time when environmentalists are urging countries to take more action against climate change, said environmentalist McCarthy.
“There’s nothing like bathing in a deep, warm bath,” he said. “It’s a joy that I absolutely accept and understand. But I keep these joys as rewards. “
However, Professor Armstrong said large numbers of people would need to change their bathing habits to improve carbon emissions. To make a real impact, local and federal governments need to invest in infrastructure that makes showering and water use generally less polluting.
“It pains me to think about fracking every time I shower and use my water heater at home,” said Professor Armstrong. “I’m in Pennsylvania. There is not much choice. “
Social mores versus science
Despite the compelling science, it’s hard to imagine that Americans as a whole rarely shower and bathe, said Lori Brown, a professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC
“We’ve been told so much about it that we can’t smell and buy products,” she said. “You are dealing with culture. You’re not into biology. You can tell people all day that this is of no use to them, and there will still be people who say, “I don’t care. I will take a shower.'”
Nina Arthur, who owns Ninas Hair Care in Flint, Michigan, said she had many clients who were menopausal and felt so uncomfortable they felt like they had to shower twice a day.
“I’ve had women who have hot flashes in my stool,” she said.
One client was sweating so badly that she asked Ms. Arthur to come up with a hairstyle that could withstand constant sweat.
The pandemic has not affected the bathing habits of such clients, Ms Arthur said.
“When you have menopause, the smells are really different,” she said. “They are not your normal smells. I don’t think there is a woman who would want that smell on her. “
Ms. Arthur, 52, said she understood the environmental argument for fewer showers, but it wouldn’t encourage her to change her bathing habits.
“No,” she said. “I’m not that woman.”
Susan Beachy contributed to the research.