The shower is a great place to think about completely random topics since it can be one of the few times when you are alone and feel relaxed. And while you’re soaping up, you may have wondered how to properly wash your body. For instance, maybe you question whether you’re using the right soap—or if you even need to use a cleanser at all. Or perhaps you ponder whether you’re washing your body in the right sequence. Is there even a right order?
There is no guidebook or definitive study showing how to properly wash your body. However, experts do have some general advice about how your washing habits can affect your skin overall. Intrigued? Then read on for some new things to contemplate the next time you’re giving yourself a good scrub.
First, let’s discuss the real point of washing your body.
It’s no mystery that most of us wash our skin to get it clean (although standing under the relaxing water or sitting in a bath can feel pretty great). Washing not only gets rid of any dirt and allergens that have accumulated on your skin, but it also gets removes some of your body’s natural oils, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and dead skin cells, explains Sara Perkins, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Yale University. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi always live on our skin—even after washing. This is completely normal and often harmless.
So, what does this mean for your day-to-day life? Cleaning your skin helps eliminate odor by washing away some of the sweat, bacteria, and natural body oils that cause the scent. “When you produce sweat and oil, they start out as being sterile,” Teri Greiling, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of dermatology and associate program director of research at Oregon Health and Science University, tells SELF. Body odor is made when the bacteria living on your skin breaks down acids in your sweat, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That’s why rinsing away sweat and reducing some of the bacteria on your skin can eliminate odors.
Cleaning your body may also help you prevent acne, which happens when your pores become clogged with an excess of oil and dead skin cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. And finally, washing your skin can help you from possibly developing fungal infections like ringworm (this often appears as a rash with a raised, wavy border), which may happen if you really sweat a lot and that sweat is trapped by tight clothes since fungi thrive in moist, warm environments, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Ringworm is more common if you are mainly hanging outside in hot, humid weather, use public showers, or come into contact with someone who has a ringworm infection, according to the AAD.
How do you properly wash your body?
As we said, there is no formal guidebook, and undoubtedly, each person’s washing habits will vary. But there are a few best practices that can help you care for your skin.
- The first thing you might want to consider is choosing a cleanser for your particular skin type, according to Dr. Perkins. For example, people with dry or sensitive skin generally feel better using a mild soap without fragrances or alcohol because those ingredients can irritate their skin. Or, for example, if you have eczema, then the Cleveland Clinic recommends looking for products containing ceramides (for moisture) that are labeled as “fragrance-free,” “hypoallergenic,” or “for sensitive skin.” Alternatively, you may want to use a cleanser with an ingredient like benzoyl peroxide on the regions where you have pimples if you are prone to body acne, according to the AAD. It’s helpful to look at the directions on the packaging since some products may need to sit on the skin for a period of time post-lather to be effective, according to Dr. Perkins.
- If you don’t have any specific skin concerns, then you really just need water and your favorite soap or body wash. “Water is excellent at washing off sweat and dust and the normal lint that we pick up around us every day, [while] soap is really good at pulling oils out of the skin,” Dr. Greiling says. This means that you can skip using soap on areas that produce less oil, like your arms and legs, as well as your back and chest if you don’t get acne in those regions. Cleansers can change the natural ecology of your skin and make it dry, so omitting them might help you retain some extra moisture.
- When it comes to the specific order that you wash your body parts, there’s currently little to no research that proves washing in a specific direction can spread bacteria, viruses, or fungi from one area of your body to another. (And spreading these microorganisms around your body isn’t generally harmful unless you’ve picked up a pathogen, such as ringworm.)
- You might find it easiest to tackle the areas where soap is recommended first to get them out of the way, says Dr. Greiling. This would include the underarms, groin, genital area, and chest and back (if you get acne in those spots), as well as your hands and feet. “Hands interact with the outside world the most,” says Dr. Greiling. “Feet are just really good at growing all kinds of bacteria and fungus, so lots of soap and water are great for your hands and feet.” Although many bacteria and fungi are harmless, you can develop athlete’s foot if your feet get very sweaty and that sweat is trapped in tight-fitting shoes, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- It’s a long-standing debate: Should you use a washcloth, loofah, or just your hands to clean your body? This is a matter of personal preference, but microorganisms can grow on washcloths and loofahs if the materials don’t dry completely. And your washcloth or loofah generally stays pretty damp unless you remove them from your tub and let them air dry completely or throw them in a dryer. However, loofahs tend to have lots of little crevices where these microorganisms can hang out, so they could potentially have more bacteria, fungi, and viruses than washcloths, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This all may sound unappealing, but generally, your risk of dealing with something like an infection because of this isn’t all that high. Theoretically, you could get an infection if a pathogen is on the material and enters your body through a cut on your skin, but that’s generally pretty unlikely. Using your hands will get your body clean (as long as you wash them first) and is a good option for people who have sensitive skin, according to the AAD. Plus, you don’t have to worry about how often you change out your cloth or loofah.
- Let’s tackle another debate: baths or showers? Theoretically, you may not get as clean as if you shower, SELF previously reported. For starters, sitting in stagnant water makes it harder to thoroughly wash away oils and microorganisms from your skin. And if your bathtub is dirty with microbes that could make you sick, then sitting in that dirty bathwater could make it easier to develop an infection if you have a small cut somewhere in your skin. If you really love baths, then it’s a good idea to clean your tub regularly. You may also want to do a quick post-bath rinse-off with water to wash away oils, dirt, and any soap you used.
- Finally, keep in mind that soaping up too much (as in numerous times per day) or using excessively hot water can potentially irritate your skin, according to Dr. Greiling.
If you see no reason to change your washing habits, then keep on doing what works for you. And if all of this hygiene talk has you wondering how often experts recommend showering, well, you can read about that too.