Yes, There’s Such a Thing as Being Too Clean

Science and History Suggest Our Daily Bath Rituals Are Unnecessary…and Possibly Harmful

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photo credit: Quino Al on Unsplash

If you have boys like I do, you know that look of sheer joy on their faces when they’ve been outside playing in the mud all day. You also know that the last thing they want to do after a day of rolling the dirt is take a bath.

And you know what? They might be onto something.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s not necessary for children to be bathed multiple times per week. In today’s Mommy circles that may seem tantamount to neglect, but the dirty truth (pun intended) is that our nightly bathing routines are unnecessary and potentially even harmful to our kids’ health, particularly in the first years of life. With the exception of the important bits (i.e., genitals), it’s actually better to lay off the lather. 

Before I get into why, I should also mention that adults (aka: big kids) are not exempt from the perils of ritual washing.

It happens a couple of times a week. A patient comes into my office with a nasty rash. “I’ve been cleaning it,” the patient explains, as we examine the bumpy, irritated skin. “But even though I’m washing it several times a day, it doesn’t get any better.” The problem, I explain, isn’t that the rash has become dirty. The problem is, they’re washing too much and irritating the skin with excess soaping and scrubbing. In short, the rash isn’t going away because cleaning it is making it worse.

As a society we’ve become obsessed with cleanliness as a panacea for all our ills. One of the reasons my patients wash so much is they think it keeps them healthy— not to mention beautiful.

Wash, cleanse, scrub, exfoliate, disinfect, repeat. Sound familiar?

The crux of the issue, as explained by Dr. Sally Bloomfield, a U.K. expert in the prevention of infectious disease, is to understand the difference between hygiene and cleanliness and delineate between them.

Hygiene, she says, involves practices required to protect us from infectious diseases. Washing your hands after you’ve returned home on the subway from work is an example of a hygienic practice—because you’re getting rid of the germs you touched on the escalator railing, the subway straps, the buttons you pressed on the fare-card dispenser.

In contrast, Bloomfield says, cleanliness is the absence of dirt, the feeling of freshness, the desire for social acceptability: “We thus need to distinguish between routines associated with cleanliness, in the sense of absence of dirt, appearance, social acceptability and freshness, and those practices required to protect us from infectious disease.” The issue here is being too clean can damage your skin and possibility lead to more infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges. “Frequent bathing has aesthetic and stress-relieving benefits,” the CDC notes, “but serves little microbiologic purpose.

To understand how water and soap can harm your skin, you need to understand the basics of the body’s largest organ. Our outermost skin functions like a suit of armor or better yet, a brick wall. Daily rinsing with hot water and soap can strip away skin lipids (the mortar holding the brick wall together) and over time, weakens it, allowing irritants to get in and hydration to escape. It has been suggested that this damage to our skin barrier function could be linked to an increase in childhood eczema and atopy-related allergies. 

But that’s not all.

Soap and water can also alter our skin’s pH. Skin is acidic, and this acidity is important for several reasons; for starters, it leads to the proper functioning of all the bacteria and organisms that live on the skin, collectively known as our skin microbiome. The acidity of our skin also helps maintain our armour and protects the body’s inherent barrier and microbiome which studies suggest help with many core functions including digestion, mood stabilization and immunity. When the skin’s pH increases, all these processes can fail.

It’s a lot of information, but the takeaway is relatively straightforward: less can actually be more when it comes to taking care of your skin.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send questions—

Dr. Sandy Skotnicki

Author- Beyond Soap: The Real Truth about what you are doing to your skin and how to fix it for a Beautiful, Healthy glow

You can follow Dr. Skotnicki on twitter @drskotnicki (and get updates on the latest and most important medical stories of the week).

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