Robin Harper, an administrative assistant at a preschool on Martha’s Vineyard, grew up showering every day.
“It’s what you did,” she said. But when the coronavirus pandemic forced her indoors and away from the general public, she started showering once a week.
The new practice felt environmentally virtuous, practical and freeing. And it has stuck.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Ms. Harper, 43, who has returned to work. “I like showers. But it’s one thing off my plate. I’m a mom. I work full-time, and it’s one less thing I have to do.”
Parents have complained that their teenage children are forgoing daily showers. After the British media reported on a YouGov survey that showed 17 percent of Britons had abandoned daily showers during the pandemic, many people on Twitter said they had done the same.
Heather Whaley, a writer in Redding, Conn., said her shower use had fallen by 20 percent in the past year.
After the pandemic forced her into lockdown, Ms. Whaley, 49, said she began thinking about why she was showering every day.
“Do I need to? Do I want to?” she said. “The act of taking a shower became less a matter of function and more of a matter of doing something for myself that I enjoyed.”
Ms. Harper, who still uses deodorant and does a daily wash of “the parts that need to be done” at the sink, said she was confident she was not offending anyone. Her 22-year-old daughter, who is fastidious about bathing and showers twice a day, has not made any comments regarding her new hygiene habit. Nor have the children at her school.
“The kids will tell you if you don’t smell good,” Ms. Harper said, “3-, 4- and 5-year-old children will tell you the truth.”
Plumbing and upward mobility changed everything
Daily showers are a fairly new phenomenon, said Donnachadh McCarthy, an environmentalist and writer in London who grew up taking weekly baths.
“We had a bath once a week and we washed under at the sink the rest of the week — under our armpits and our privates — and that was it,” Mr. McCarthy, 61, said.
As he grew older, he showered every day. But after a visit to the Amazon jungle in 1992 revealed the ravages of overdevelopment, Mr. McCarthy said he began reconsidering how his daily habits were affecting the environment and his own body.
“It’s not really good to be washing with soap every day,” said Mr. McCarthy, who showers once a week.
Doctors and health experts have said that daily showers are unnecessary, and even counterproductive. Washing with soap every day can strip the skin of its natural oils and leave it feeling dry, though doctors still recommend frequent hand-washing.
The American obsession with cleaning began around the turn of the 20th century, when people began moving into cities after the Industrial Revolution, said Dr. James Hamblin, a lecturer at Yale University and the author of “Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less.”
Cities were dirtier so residents felt they had to wash more frequently, Dr. Hamblin said, and soap manufacturing became more common. Indoor plumbing also began to improve, giving the middle class more access to running water.
To set themselves apart from the masses, wealthy people began investing in fancier soaps and shampoos and started bathing more frequently, he said.
“It became a sort of arms race,” Dr. Hamblin said. “It was a signifier of wealth if you looked like you could bathe every day.”
Bathing less = better skin and a cleaner planet
Kelly Mieloch, 42, said that since the pandemic began she had showered only “every couple of days.”
What is the point of daily showers, she said, when she rarely leaves the house except to run errands like taking her 6-year-old daughter to school?
“They’re not smelling me — they don’t know what’s happening,” Ms. Mieloch said. “Most of the time, I’m not even wearing a bra.”
What’s more, she said her decision to stop daily showers had helped her appearance.
“I just feel like my hair is better, my skin is better and my face is not so dry,” said Ms. Mieloch, a mortgage loan closer in Asheville, N.C.
Andrea Armstrong, an assistant professor of environmental science and studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., said she was encouraged as more people rethink the daily shower.
An eight-minute shower uses up to 17 gallons of water, according to the Water Research Fund. Running water for even five minutes uses as much energy as running a 60-watt light bulb for 14 hours, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And frequent washing means going through more plastic bottles and using more soap, which is often made with petroleum.
The individual choice to stop showering or bathing daily is a critical one to make at a time when environmentalists are calling on countries to take more action against climate change, Mr. McCarthy, the environmentalist, said.
“There is nothing like soaking in a deep warm bath,” he said. “There is pleasure there that I absolutely accept and understand. But I keep those pleasures as treat.”
Still, Professor Armstrong said, it would take a huge number of people changing their bathing habits to make a difference in carbon emissions. To make a real impact, local and federal governments have to invest in infrastructure that makes showering and water use in general less harmful for the environment.
“It pains me to think of fracking every time I take a shower and use my hot water heater in the home,” Professor Armstrong said. “I’m in Pennsylvania. There is not much of a choice.”
Social mores versus science
Despite the compelling science, it is difficult to imagine Americans as a whole embracing infrequent showers and baths, said Lori Brown, a professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
“We’ve been told so much about not smelling and buying products,” she said. “You’re dealing with culture. You’re not dealing with biology. You can tell people all day that this is not doing any good for them, and there are still going to be people who say: ‘I don’t care. I’m going to take a shower.’”
Nina Arthur, who owns Nina’s Hair Care in Flint, Mich., said she had many clients who were going through menopause and were so uncomfortable that they felt they needed to shower twice a day.
“I’ve had women who are having hot flashes in my chair,” she said.
One client was sweating so much, she asked Ms. Arthur to come up with a hairstyle that could withstand constant perspiration.
The pandemic has not swayed the bathing habits of such clients, Ms. Arthur said.
“When you have menopause, the smells are really different,” she said. “They’re not your normal smelling smells. I don’t think there is any woman who would want that smell on them.”
Ms. Arthur, 52, said she understood the environmental argument for showering less, but it would not move her to change her bathing habits.
“Nope,” she said. “I’m not that woman.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.