Obsessing over personal hygiene is more of a social norm than a biological need
Stepping into a hot, steamy shower every day isn't just comforting -- it also seems like the proper adult thing to do, assuming you're lucky enough to have a job. No one wants to be the smelly person in the office, and washing away the dirt and grime you've accumulated seems like a common-sense way to stay healthy.
But Americans are sudsing up way too much. Compared to other well-off countries, people in the US admit to showering an average of around seven times a week -- like, every freaking day, sheesh -- which is more than the five times a week for people in China, Britain, and Japan. And while French and Spanish people shower around the same number of times as Americans, they shampoo much less frequently -- the French, for example, shampoo just twice per week.
The desire to be clean could backfire
All that bathing isn't just excessive compared to other developed nations; it can end up being worse for your skin and hair.
"Daily washing is not necessary for most people," dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse says. "It washes off natural oils, and leaves skin dry and at risk for irritation." She recommends showering every other day. "This will help to rinse off dead skin cells and grease, as well as superficial bacteria and yeasts, which can lead to body odor, acne-type flares, and rashes in some people," she adds. You only need to shower more frequently if you work a physically strenuous job, or exercise for an hour every day.
And if you're using antibacterial body washes, you're washing away all the good bacteria you want on your skin. Skin bacteria have been compared to gut bacteria, in that there needs to be enough of the good stuff to thrive and naturally fight off the bad kinds of bacteria.
In fact, research from the University of Utah suggests that most Westerners royally screw up their microbiomes with too much showering.
After hopping out of the shower, Americans love to cover their armpits with deodorant and antiperspirant. If those painfully awkward health classes on puberty taught people anything, it's that deodorant is an essential part of an everyday hygienic routine. No one wants to be stinky!
But the desire to get rid of natural -- sometimes gross! -- scents usually means rubbing aluminum right onto your underarm. Research suggests that antiperspirants containing aluminum may cause gene instability in breast tissue, not to mention the neurotoxic effects associated with the metal generally. Parabens and phthalates, chemical ingredients both frequently found in deodorant, can also disrupt your hormones, especially when applied to such a sensitive area. Basically, it's better to be the smelly kid, though you can class it up by saying it's "the European way."
Brushing your teeth twice a day is also something that's been ingrained in you since preschool, and it's still a good rule of thumb to live by. But to avoid those Brexit-friendly teeth, some people think brushing more frequently must be better. Not always. If you whip out your toothbrush and toothpaste after each meal and snack, especially if it's something particularly acidic (coffee, pickles, citrus fruits, etc.), it can cause more damage. Acid naturally erodes enamel, and brushing can push the acid further into your teeth. It’s best to stick to the twice-a-day rule -- three times if you eat something particularly gnarly -- just make sure you don't hit the toothbrush to your teeth until about an hour after eating.
Ad dollars target your insecurities
While you're cleaning yourself, you end up using tons of products that you may not really need in the first place: body wash, face wash, shampoo, and conditioner. Then, the containers are tossed (hopefully in the recycling bin!) -- you're literally washing your hard-earned money down the drain. Body and face soap is a $3.1 billion industry annually, according to Nielsen, and the US Census Bureau reports people spend $4.3 billion on shampoo a year.
So why do people feel the need to maintain an obsessive hygiene routine and spend tons of money on fancy products when they feel the slightest bit dirty? It's the same reason sugary cereals feature kid-friendly cartoon characters, and the tobacco industry continued to thrive well after it was considered a carcinogen -- marketing.
Ads for body soap and mouthwash started popping up in the early 20th century, and these manufacturers created fake hygiene issues just to hawk their products. Bad breath wasn't really a thing people worried about until Listerine was invented, and same with body odor and the invention of deodorant; in fact, the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers created something called the Cleanliness Institute in 1927 as a way for Big Soap to make people feel real self-conscious about their hygiene. Imagine that, the beauty industry manufacturing problems just to profit off of people's insecurities...