Is bathing a good idea?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2013

It wasn't so long ago that most Americans enjoyed a Saturday night bath and didn't bother on the other six days of the week. Stone-Agers didn't bathe at all but I wouldn't want to stand close to one. Bathophobes claim that humans are the only animals that bother to clean their bodies and that soap and water remove beneficial bacteria and protective substances from the skin. They admit though, that they need either to wash their armpits and other areas or apply deodorants in order to avoid offending family and co-workers.

Americans who visit other countries, especially if they have had to spend hours on crowded buses or trains, often complain of having to endure underarm odor or worse. As far back as ancient Roman times we learned how to mask those odors with perfumes and colognes. According to traditional accounts, women, especially brides, carried bouquets of flowers to hide body odor. In an age when most people lived on farms, body odor was only one among animal-associated aromas.

The human race thrived without bathing for a couple of million years. At the time of World War One barely 1 percent of homes in America had a bathtub. Until the middle of the 20th century bathtubs remained a luxury.

The past decade has seen a dramatic increase of antibiotic-resistant Staphylococci, skin-dwelling bacteria that have become a major public health problem. Have we become more susceptible because we wash away the good bacteria that protect us?

It's true that daily bathing reduces the number of beneficial bacteria on the skin but from a practical point of view that's a small price to pay for a clean appearance and minimal body odor. After all, bathing removes the bad germs too and handwashing with ordinary soap and water still constitutes the most effective means of preventing infections within medical settings.

Persons with diabetes are susceptible to skin infections, especially on the feet where a minor break in the skin, unnoticed because of diabetes-related nerve damage, can provide entry for dangerous germs. Proper skin care that includes meticulous cleansing can prevent serious problems.

Humans that endured months or years without bathing and access to clean clothing in concentration camps inevitably became louse-infested. When those pests jumped onto other humans they transmitted serious diseases such as typhus.

Except for persons with certain skin disorders there is no downside to a daily bath or shower.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.