All that soaping, lathering, rinsing, and luxuriating may be doing your skin a disservice. “The biggest problem we see for older patients is dry skin and itching, and that progresses to eczema,” says Patricia Farris, M.D., a dermatologist in New Orleans and Clinical Associate Professor at Tulane University. “As you age, your oil glands poop out on you, so you’re much more prone to dry skin. You have to adjust your bathing habits accordingly.”
Read on for the most common showering mistakes you might not be aware of.
1. Blasting the hot water
You may think a steaming hot shower is doing therapeutic good by relaxing your muscles, but a dermatologist would tell you to stick to the heating pads and save the scalding hot water for your tea. “Hot water is bad for two reasons,” says Cynthia Bailey, M.D., a dermatologist in Northern California and founder of DrBaileySkinCare.com.
“First, it removes too much of your natural oils (much like it works better than cold water for cleaning greasy pots and pans). Second, hot water brings blood circulation to your skin which is why your skin turns red like a lobster. With the circulation comes inflammatory building blocks to create more itch and even a rash.” Dr. Bailey advises that water temperature should be tepid, meaning skin temperature or just a little warmer — especially if you have fragile skin that’s prone to dryness.
2. Showering for too long
Between the steam, streaming water, and warmth, it’s tempting to spend 15, 20, even 30 minutes in the shower, but many experts say anything more than 10 minutes is too much. “You shouldn’t shower for more than 5 to 10 minutes,” says Dr. Farris. “Shorter is better.” Long showers strip your skin of moisture, too.
3. Using deodorant soap
It can be hard to part with products you’re used to, but if you’re using deodorant or antibacterial soaps, the harsh fragrances and ingredients are stripping moisture out of your skin. “Traditional antibacterial or deodorant soaps can cause extreme dryness, itching, and flakiness,” says Rhonda Klein, M.D., a dermatologist in Milford, CT, and Assistant Clinical Professor in Dermatology at Yale University. “Soap-free cleansers are best for aging skin. With age, the skin becomes thinner, and loses fat, sweat, and oil glands — thus moisturizing washes are most important.”
When you’re shopping for soap, steer clear of these harsh ingredients, says Dr. Klein: parabens, fragrances, triclosan, synthetic colors, formaldehyde, sodium lauryl sulfate/sodium laureth sulfate — all can aggravate your skin and cause contact dermatitis and abnormal dryness.
4. Soaping your whole body
Soap is formulated to dissolve dirt and oil, allowing water to wash it away. The skin on arms and legs generally doesn’t have a lot of oil to give up, so cleaning them with soap is like drawing water from a stone — your limbs are left bone dry. “Minimize soaping to only the oily and odor-causing parts of your skin such as your face, armpits, buttocks, groin, and feet,” says Dr. Bailey.
5. Waiting too long to moisturize
Dermatologists agree, three is the magic number. Waiting any longer than three minutes after leaving the shower to moisturize allows your skin to lose precious moisture to the air.
Proper moisturizing protocol: After stepping from the shower, gently pat excess water from your skin, leaving some droplets behind. Then apply a liberal amount of a moisturizer that contains ceramide (a natural oil found in skin), and massage over your whole body.
“What is crucial is that you trap that water with application of moisturizing cream within 3 minutes of toweling the excess surface water off of your skin,” says Dr. Bailey. Dr. Farris agrees: “The minute you get out of the shower, moisturize before the liquid evaporates or you lose [your skin’s moisture] to the air.” When skin gets dry and cracks, it lets in bacteria and allergens, she warns. “It’s really important to keep skin moisturized.”
6. Not replacing your puff
Though exfoliating tools aren’t intrinsically bad for your skin, using the same loofah or body puff for too long is a big no-no. “Puffs and loofahs do grow bacteria and mold and should be thrown out after four weeks,” says Debra Jaliman, M.D., author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
“After you use them, take them out of the shower and let them dry out. Lingering moisture will encourage bacterial and fungal growth.” Using a bacteria-infested loofah can lead to a skin condition called pseudomonas folliculitis, an infection in the hair follicles, says Dr. Farris. “It’s not dangerous, and will go away on it’s own, but it can be very pesky and itchy.”
A better option, she says, is to use a washcloth — it gives you mild exfoliation, which is important since your natural skin-cell turnover rate slows as you age. Plus you likely have a dozen washcloths in your linen closet, encouraging frequent rotation of clean ones into the shower.
7. Washing your hair daily
How many times a week do you think you should wash your hair? Every day? Every other day? According to trichologists, the technical term for health professionals who specialize in hair and scalp, that’s way too often.
“Someone with thin, fine or delicate hair should avoid shampooing too frequently — no more than two times a week — should help maintain the natural oil production, while achieving moisture balance,” says Andrea L. Hayden, Director of the International Association of Trichologists (USA) and owner of The Hair Management Group in San Antonio, TX.
And if you have coarse or curly hair, try once every seven days. “Coarse texture or natural curly hair takes longer to establish a good amount of natural oils, so shampooing can be pushed back to once a week. A person could refresh the hair/scalp mid-week, if necessary, by simply applying a conditioner and rinsing thoroughly.”
8. Using the same old shampoo
Just as your skin becomes more delicate and dry as you age, so does your hair, says Hayden. “For people 50 and older, hair strands require more TLC. As you age, the hair loses protein, elasticity, and density. Safeguard your hair by using sulfate-free shampoos, which are much gentler, avoiding brittleness.” And if your hair seems especially prone to breakage, she recommends using a protein conditioning treatment once a month to help restore lost protein and increase hair strength.
Bonus: Why we do our best thinking in the shower
Our lives are full of interruptions. Rarely do we find ourselves without some level of distraction, from phones, to people, to emails, to pets. It never ends.
Showering is one of the few moments in our day where we are free from technology and people. One of the few times where we are forced to be present and allow our minds to wander. With this freedom, our brains can start to tackle all of those thoughts and ideas we’ve placed on the back burner.
When we have a relaxed state of mind, we’re more likely to turn our attention inwards and make insightful connections. We are physically distracted, by the washing, shampooing and so on, which allows our active brains to take over and gives our subconscious brain time to work on problems more creatively.