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Are Baths Really More Gross Than Showers?

Let's find out just how much filth you're sitting in.

This story appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.


The scenario: Your friend's just had one of those days. You know, the one where you miss every train you try to catch, a colleague throws you under the bus during a meeting, and there's only decaf left in the coffee machine. Point being, she thinks nothing sounds better than running a hot bath, climbing in, and soaking for an hour or so. Not only is the hot water relaxing, it also gets you nice and clean before bed. Clean enough, your friend argues, to skip a shower the next morning. That'd just be wasteful, right?

The concern: People usually fall into two camps: Pro-bathers, and the anti-bathers (or pro-shower-ers). Those on the anti- side insist that taking a bath is equivalent to sitting in a pool of your own filth. Instead of dirt and grime going down the drain, it gets washed off into a tub full of water—where it has nowhere to go except back on your skin. And that's not even taking into account the cleanliness of the tub itself—which, let's be honest, most people haven't properly scrubbed for the better part of two months. No matter how soothing a soak can be, you're actually just gross and unhygienic, the naysayers argue.

Well, they're not entirely wrong. "Baths are full of bacteria," says Debra Jaliman, assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "They have e. coli, streptococcus, as well as staphylococcus aureus." But is that really as bad as it sounds?


The worst that could happen: Let's assume your friend is really, really unlucky. It's theoretically possible that things could go downhill real quick. For starters, if your friend has an open cut or a skin abrasion, combined with a weak immune system, she could get an infection, Jaliman says. But even in one of the worst-case scenarios—say, staph—it'll usually get cleared up with a round of antibiotics.

What else? Well, supposing some of that nasty bath water could get in her mouth, there's the possibility (again, slim) that she could experience health complications related to an E. coli infection, which include bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting. So, maybe don't combine bath time with Ben & Jerry's.

What will probably happen: Not much. Yes, baths can be petri dishes full of questionable microorganisms, but the human body is up to the challenge. Odds are, the worst of your friend's problems will be limited to dry and flaky skin. The longer she soaks,the more moisture gets stripped away, especially if she's already prone to dry skin. Flaky, cracked skin is also more prone to infections, Jaliman says, which may increase the likelihood of something going awry.

What you should do: If she's really looking to play it safe, your friend could take a shower first to ensure all the grime—especially those poop particles—is washed off her skin before she's left lounging in it. Not soaking for hours on end will also keep her skin from drying out too badly. And when she's out of the tub, it'd be a good idea to apply some lotion to replenish lost moisture. Finally, and we know this probably goes without saying, but you could gently remind her to take some bleach and a sponge to her tub and scrub like hell once in awhile. A bath, after all, can be one of the best cures for sore muscles.

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