For too long, I had my way with showers despite my misgivings about water waste and skin care. Long and luxurious, in the time it took to wash and condition my once-long locks and shave the junctions pertinent to my dating life, my worries and troubles rinsed away down the drain. Good genetics—and environmental denial—only last so long, however.
Now, I'm starting to notice that after an especially long, hot shower, my skin gets so dry I can peel it off in sheets. I break out in shower hives—unsightly red, itchy bumps, as though I'm allergic to water. The birth of my son, whose hatred of alone time made showering a weekly, not daily option for his first two years, further curbed any lingering in the shower.
Now that I'm more aware of the effects of water on my skin, as well as a native of drought-stricken California, I keep my showers to five minutes. Yet I miss those days when I could shower at length without guilt or adverse side effects to my skin.
Anna*, a chemist from California, hasn't been able to quit yet. She takes long showers mainly "to warm up," she says, and because they're relaxing, but also because, "As an African American woman, my hair routine—performed once a week—takes a lengthy amount of time." Despite her love of the long wash, she's also noticed some side effects including dry, itchy skin that occasionally sends her to the doctor. "They tell me to take shorter showers and decrease the water temperature," she says. This exercise in moderation usually only lasts until her skin has recovered, she says.
Anna's symptoms are common with prolonged exposure to hot water. "Long, hot showers dry skin and cause skin capillaries to open to increase skin blood flow," Cynthia Bailey, a California dermatologist and president of Advanced Skin Care and Dermatology, tells me.
While this is not usually a serious problem for normal skin, she says if there is already a rash or a skin condition—such as psoriasis, eczema or atopic dermatitis—"it will bring in the building blocks of inflammation to worsen the rash," she says. Also, if you suffer rosacea, characterized by extreme facial redness, dilated blood vessels, and acne-like bumps, you'll especially want to steer clear of too much hot water, which further inflames the condition.
Hot water is also drying because it strips the skin of its natural oils, says Joel Schlessinger, a dermatologic surgeon in Omaha, Nebraska. "The heat from the shower softens the skin's natural oil barrier and soap washes it away." Without this barrier, skin easily loses moisture, leading to dryness, itchiness and irritation. "Hot showers and baths also make sensitive skin symptoms worse. If hot showers are taken on a regular basis, you might start to notice dry patches of skin that feel scaly or start to crack," Schlessinger says.
He recommends taking lukewarm showers, and keeping them to ten minutes or less. Vigorous rubbing from your towel also creates extra friction that your freshly washed skin doesn't need. "Better to pat yourself dry and moisturize with body lotion as soon as you step out of the shower," he says. "If you skip this step, the top layers of your skin can quickly become dry and dehydrated."
While water is the OG of hydrators, slapping something "greasy or oily" onto the skin after a long shower prevents evaporation and seals in moisture. Think olive oil, jojoba oil, or shea butter. To soothe already dry skin, look for products that include lactic acid, urea (uh, yea), glycerin, lanolin, mineral oil, and petrolatum.
Not everyone who loves a long shower does so simply because it feels good, however. Jesse*, a California scientist uses the shower as a kind of "sensory deprivation" technique, saying, "I feel like it creates a space where my conscious mind can hear the voice of my subconscious more clearly." On the weekends he'll indulge in 45-minute to one-hour showers to clear out and open up his mind. "I have many times had 'a-ha' moments, either regarding some intellectual problem or some emotional issue in the shower," he says.
But while a forty-five minute shower might be great for your mind—if not your skin—it also wastes about 225 gallons of water, or five gallons of water per minute. So if you're doing it to clear your head, do the world a favor: Turn the nozzle off and take up meditation instead.
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*Sources preferred to use a pseudonym.