24 Sep 2023

Put down the soap, you're showering too much, says top dermatologist

From Sunday Morning, 8:30 am on 24 September 2023
Woman in shower

Long showers are so hot right now, but they're harmful for our skin, says a top dermatologist. Photo: Hannah Xu for Unsplash

Put down the soap and step away from the shower gel. Having a low-soap shower several days a week is probably enough, according to a US dermatologist who says obsessive cleanliness is harming our skin.

Dr Mark Abdelmalek, a Philadelphia dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon, tells Jim Mora that it’s not healthy to shower more than once a day, despite what modern society seems to demand.

“Culturally, we're over-showering,” he says.

“Looking great and having a nice outfit and dressing up and all the selfies that we take and all the social media pictures and reels that we're putting out into the world, we’ve got to look good for that. A prerequisite of that is usually the shower and making yourself look a certain way, but do we need all of that? Probably not.”

The ‘Everything Shower’ – where you spend two to four hours indulging in detailed and indulgent personal grooming routines – might be huge on TikTok, but Abdelmalek says all this washing is bad for our skin.

“People who shower obsessively and multiple times a day, that's not healthy. But the happy balance is somewhere in between that's unique to everybody and their skin and their habits.”

How often is too often for you? Your skin will tell you, Abdelmalek says, because it’s “a dynamic, alive, interacting organ”.

Dr. Mark Abdelmalek

Dr. Mark Abdelmalek Photo: Screenshot

“The skin is constantly looking at the outside world and recognising what is safe, what is foreign, what is good, what is bad, and having a memory to all of that that it keeps for your life.”

Washing too much can aggravate conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema), among other skin issues.

“When you notice yourself scratching, when you notice your skin is ashy, when you feel like there might be a sensitivity to your skin. Those are all signals that your skin is sending saying, ‘hey, you're doing something that's too much to me. Stop please’."

Spend too long in a hot shower, for instance, and your skin will soon complain, Abdelmalek says.

“Hot showers are so nice, but they're not great for you. They feel good in the moment. But they're just stripping the oils and the natural barrier that your skin has…  There's this like period of evaporation after you take a really hot shower. And that's shedding a lot of water and moisture off your skin that you need.”

He says he can tell if people indulge in too many hot showers just by looking at their backs.

“Oftentimes people will say, ‘oh, I have an itchy back, doc’, and then they'll show it to you… and you’ll say, ‘ooh, you really like a hot shower, don't you?’ And then they're shocked at how you knew that… you can see the evidence on the back of people who take a hot shower like a fingerprint.”

Despite all the marketing to the contrary, we don’t need lots of fancy soap or frothy shower gels to get clean, Abelmalek says.

“You need a mild soap that doesn't have too many anti-bacterial properties and things that are going to strip the natural oils out of your skin. I mean, you need soap under your armpits and certain parts of your body that tend to collect dirt and things like that, but you don't need a lot of soap and you certainly don't need to be lathering up.”

Exfoliating tools, like loofahs and gloves, are also unnecessary, he says.

“Your hands are a fine device to clean your body. You don't need added textures to strip dirt and layers off your skin. All you need are your fingertips and a little bit of soap and water.”

The same advice applies to hair-washing, he says, though hair needs a bit more help to maintain its condition.

“You’ve got to find the right frequency for you and depending on the hair style that you want to wear and your hair texture and your natural hair tendencies.

“Washing your hair also doesn't need to happen as much as people think, certainly not every day. A few times a week is probably more than adequate.”

Abdelmalek’s own shower routine is set in stone: “I can’t function in the day without showering in the morning,” he says. “I will almost never shower at night no matter what is on my skin because I'm just too lazy.”

As people get older, they frequently shower less, and “that’s totally fine,” Abdelmalek says.

“Some people just are busy and only shower every other day or every few days. And, it's also seasonal, in winter you may get away with skipping every other day.”