Save your skin: How you shower matters more than when, dermatologists say
By Allyson Chiu June 9, 2021 at 8:00 a.m. EDT1132
For as long as Jay Maharath can remember, he’s showered at night — a habit instilled in him at a young age by his Asian parents, who didn’t want traces of the outdoors dirtying up their home.
Though always having to wash at the end of the day was bothersome when he was a child, Maharath, who is Laotian American, said he’s grown to appreciate the night shower.
“It just feels, to be honest, a bit cleaner,” said Maharath, 26, of Hanover, Md. “Once you go outside, especially here in the summer right now, you’re dealing with all these kinds of bugs, you’re dealing with the dust, you’re dealing with the dirt.”
It also serves another function, he said. “Being able to shower at night lets me calm down a little bit and then it’s like I can get into the mode of actually being able to sleep.”
Zaid Al-Hamdan is more concerned about waking up. A former night showerer who switched about 10 years ago, he said he noticed an immediate improvement in his mood and productivity after making the change.
“It’s made a world of a difference,” said Al-Hamdan, 28, an entrepreneur based between D.C. and Doha, Qatar. Beyond starting the day feeling clean, Al-Hamdan said, stepping under the shower spray “just shocks you and wakes you up.”
“When I go into the office, I’m more prepared to work as soon as I walk in,” he said. “I don’t spend 30 minutes waking up and just drinking coffee after coffee.”
The “right” time to shower is an age-old debate. Although sleep experts say there is some evidence that a nightly rinse at the right temperaturecould help if you’re struggling to fall asleep and a morning shower may be beneficial for waking you up, dermatologists say skin health and hygiene depend much more on how, not when, you’re showering.
When you prefer to shower “is not a scientific decision,” said Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “This is a personal decision.
“The benefit of the skin really comes from what you’re using in the shower, what you do right after the shower,” Gohara continued. “You could be showering in the morning or you could be showering at night and using crappy products and ruining your skin.”
Anecdotally, dermatologists say, many people seem to be showering less during the coronavirus pandemic — part of a larger trend of embracing minimalism in daily routines. This actually dovetails with some of their guidance aboutwashing and shampooing. Time of day aside, here are the factors to consider when you shower.
Temperature and shower length matter
There are few things more soothing than a long, hot shower. But for some people, especially those who have drier skin or skin conditions such as eczema, prolonged exposure to hot water can often do more harm than good, dermatologists say.
For one thing, its relaxing effect can encourage people to take longer showers or baths, said Ivy Lee, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist, which “can actually draw out and dehydrate the skin.” That’s because when “you’re opening up that skin barrier and creating that permeability, it really just decreases [the skin’s] ability to hold on to water,” Lee said.
Lee and other dermatologists recommend shorter showers of no more than 10 minutes, using warm or room temperature water — or even cold water — which is less drying to skin.
Water temperature and timing are also important factors to consider if you’re a night showerer who hopes it will help you sleep, said Phyllis Zee, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. For best results, Zee recommends taking a warm shower between one and two hours before going to bed.
This would warm up your hands, feet and head, causing heat to dissipate from more central parts of your body, such as your chest or abdominal area, and helping to decrease your body temperature, Zee said. Because the body naturally begins to cool down as it approaches bedtime, this may help you fall asleep, she said.
But showering at extreme temperatures right before bed could be a problem, said Rachel Salas, a sleep neurologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness. “If you take a shower close to bedtime and it’s a very hot or cold shower, that temperature can negatively affect your sleep because what you’re doing is you’re making your body temperature so different from baseline.”
Less is more
For skin health and hygiene, when and how often you shower should depend on your skin type and activity levels, said Chad Prather, a clinical assistant professor in the dermatology department at Louisiana State University. If you have drier skin or aren’t doing many activities that may result in sweating or exposures to dirt, other irritants or germs, you could shower less frequently.
Gohara said she generally recommends people wash their bodies once a day, or twice at the most. For those with conditions such as eczema, even showering once a day might be too much, she said.
The “less is more” approach should also be applied during the shower, said Jules Lipoff, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Though Lipoff and other experts noted that indulging in a long shower or bath can be important for mental health, much of what people do when they bathe is “certainly not medically or hygienically necessary.”
When it comes to bathing, Prather said he encourages people to focus on “the three Ps”: “pits, privates and piggies.” Your armpits, groin and rear area, and feet are the only parts of the body that emit bad odors, Gohara said.
Hair washing, Prather said, can be more variable. “Not everyone has to wash hair every day,” he said, and it’s important to find the routine that “fits your lifestyle.”
Lee added: “It really depends on hair texture and also what that balance and equilibrium is for an individual.”
If your hair is brittle, has a coarser texture or you notice split ends, that may be a sign that you’re washing too frequently and stripping the natural moisture, Lee said. Alternatively, not washing your hair enough can lead to a greasy appearance, as well as more buildup on the scalp and dandruff.
When you’re washing your hair, Prather recommends focusing shampoo on your scalp. “Washing your hair should feel like you’re giving yourself a scalp massage,” he said. But if you use conditioner, he said, make sure to work that through the length of your hair.
Choose body-friendly products
According to the Food and Drug Administration, there are very few “true soaps” (made with a combination of fats or oils and an alkali, such as lye) on the market today, as most body cleansers — liquid and bar forms — are synthetic detergents, which are less irritating to the skin.
The dermatologists suggested looking for a soap or body wash described as a “gentle cleanser” and sulfate-free shampoos.
One sign that you may be using something too harsh is if you emerge from the shower feeling “squeaky clean,” Gohara said. “When you feel like your face is tight, that is basically your skin barrier giving you an SOS, like, ‘You destroyed me.’ ”
Lipoff also cautioned against using antibacterial cleansers, which tend to be more drying, too. “It’s not necessarily healthier and in our interest to reduce bacteria all the time,” he said, though he added that in a pandemic when people are worried about infections, it can be a “tricky balance.”
Resist the urge to scrub
Dermatologists also caution against scrubbing too vigorously or over-exfoliating in the shower. “Scrubbing is like synonymous with cleansing and that’s a really big fallacy,” Gohara said. “I always tell my patients that scrubbing is for your appliances, not your skin.”
Consider soaping yourself with only your hands or if you want to use an applicator, try a soft shower pouf or cotton washcloth, she said. Traditional loofahs would probably be too abrasive.
Similarly, some exfoliating products and tools can be “very irritating” to the skin, Lee said. Though there may be cosmetic benefits to removing your dead skin cells with manual or chemical exfoliants, “your skin will naturally exfoliate,” she said.
If you do choose to exfoliate and don’t have any existing skin conditions, avoid doing it more than once a week and take a gentle approach, experts said. Gritty washes or scrubs “can lead to little microtraumas and exacerbation of dryness and problems with the skin,” Prather said.
Don’t forget aftercare
Once you get out of the shower, don’t do the classic “towel shimmy” and rub your skin, Gohara and other experts said. Pat yourself dry and focus on moisturizing. Gohara suggests moisturizing immediately post-shower in the bathroom, because the skin is still damp and you can capitalize on the “ambient humidity.”
While there are many types of moisturizers — including ointments, creams and lotions — Lee recommends using a fragrance-free moisturizing cream, which can lock in more moisture than lighter-weight lotions that have a higher water content.
Skin health “really starts in the shower,” Gohara said. “Maintaining the integrity of the skin barrier is important and showering can either make that or break that depending on what you’re doing.”