Don't bother arguing: the body is disgusting. Liquid seeps out of us and collects between folds of flesh, oil and dead skin gather on our scalp if not raked off, and countless unappetizing happenings are underway at all times in the nether region between our genitalia and assholes. And so, many people feel they must clean their body regularly in order to be hygienic. Last year The Atlantic reported on the average number of showers in countries across the world. According to their data, people in the US average more than six showers a week, with more than 70% of American men and women showering once per day.
There's no scientific research to suggest that frequent bathing is a good idea for the health of people. This is well established: twelve years ago, Dr. Elaine Larson of Columbia School of Nursing co-authored a study undermining the notion that we should scrubbing up once, or even twice, per day. In an interview with Broadly, Dr. Larson said she was amused to see that her research has picked up speed more than a decade after first publishing the findings. "This has been known for ages," she explained, adding that nothing has changed since the data she found at the start of the new millennium. So yes, it's true: "There's never been any evidence that showering reduces infections in normal, healthy people"
But we're still interested in hearing about from scientists who say we ought not clean ourselves. It seems as if, despite the lack of evidence, there's still a social norm in the United States that dictates how often you ought to bathe. Dr. Larson thinks that its logical: people assume that by washing themselves off they're becoming more clean. "But actually, there's some very old research that shows when you shower you actually shed more bacteria and germs into the environment than before you shower," she said. Whereas the high grade antiseptic soaps used in medical facilities actually kill germs, regular soap just sloughs it off the body, dispersing it, which is how germs spread.
But there are concerns against using antiseptic soap casually: "You've probably heard the rumor that if you use antiseptic soaps maybe you're increasing the chance of resistance and theoretically that could happen," Dr. Larson said. "It hasn't yet happened in real life but it certainly has happened in the lab." Instead, she recommends waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizers which, apparently, eliminate more germs in seconds than a five minute hand washing session yet do not present any risk for resistant germ strains. If you don't shower for days, it's not a bad thing. "After a few days the bacterial counts on your skin don't keep increasing, they stabilize," Dr. Larson said.
It's okay to bathe, she told me, but important to understand the real reason you're doing it. According to Dr. Larson, people shower to feel clean, as opposed to being clean, and ultimately for aesthetic purposes. Speaking of feeling dirty and being aesthetically unpleasing. Intuition tells us that men are, generally, far more vile and dirty than women. Fortunately for feminism, these instincts are validated by science. "When we're looking at the germs that grow on the hands of men and women, men generally have higher bacterial counts than women on their hands."
It's more than hands. A study from 2012 found that the offices of men have more bacteria in them than women's offices. But Dr. Larson says it's hard to determine the cause of these higher levels of bacteria. It could be that something is biologically causing men to be more bacteria-ridden, but there are also environmental, behavioral, and cultural factors to be considered. For instance, women have long been relegated to cooking food and the care taking of children which means that, culturally, women may be more likely to wash their hands more frequently than men.
Dr. Larson hasn't researched this aspect per sé, but she says that the higher incidence of bacteria on men's hands "could have to do with hormones as well as the amount of sebum, which is a nice growth medium for organisms." Sebum, she told me, is basically fat excreted by the skin. "Germs need something to live in and the sebum or fat in the skin is a good medium where the organisms can survive and multiply whereas they can't when your skin is really dry."
When asked if men need to bathe more than women, Dr. Larson decided no, probably not. It's more likely that people should bathe based on those behavioral, circumstantial, and environmental factors. Like, if you're a professional athlete or, like, if you're on your period. "Certainly anybody, let's say, who has urinary leakage," Dr. Larson added. The rest is aesthetic. As for men, it's not clear if their uncleanness extends beyond the hands, Dr. Larson said. "I haven't cultured the rest of their bodies."