What Happens When You Don’t Shower For Five Years

August 29, 2020

Five years ago, I stopped showering.

At least, by most modern definitions of the word. I still get my hair wet occasionally, but I quit shampooing or conditioning, or using soap, except on my hands. I also gave up the other personal care products—hand sanitizers and exfoliants and antibiotic deodorants—that I had always associated with being clean.

I’m not here to recommend this approach to everyone. In a lot of ways it was terrible. But it also changed my life.

I’d like to say I stopped showering for some noble, virtuous reason—like because an average shower uses 17 gallons of perfectly good water. Or because that water then gets filled with petroleum-based detergents and soaps made from palm oil grown in the rainforest. The body-care products shipped from around the world contain antimicrobial preservatives and plastic micro-beads that end up in our lakes and streams and make their way into our food and groundwater and back into our own bodies. Aisles upon aisles of these products are sold in pharmacies around the world in plastic bottles that will never biodegrade, and that end up floating together like islands in the oceans. Islands that whales try, tragically, to mate with.

The last bit about the whales is not true (hopefully). But the rest of these are global effects of daily bathroom habits on the scale of 7 billion people that I hadn’t really considered when I first stopped showering.

For me, it started simply. It wasn’t even really about showering. I had just moved from LA to DC to New York, where everything is smaller and more expensive and more difficult. I’d reoriented a career practicing medicine to essentially start over as a journalist. I was transitioning from a profession that promised a half-million-dollar salary into a globally imploding job market. I had moved across the country and was back at the bottom of a professional ladder, in a studio apartment with no clear path. A mentor told me not to start climbing again unless I knew my ladder was against the right wall.

He didn’t mean, “stop showering.” I don’t think. But I saw this as a moment to take stock of everything in my life. In the process of this existential audit, I considered the possessions and habits that I might at least try going without. I cut back on caffeine and alcohol, disconnected my cable and internet, and sold my car—limiting anything that could be an overhead, recurring, mindless cost. I toyed with living in a van, because Instagram made it look so glamorous, but was discouraged adamantly by my girlfriend and everyone else in my life.

Even though I wasn’t spending a lot of money on soap and shampoo, I did think about the net amount of time that went into using them. Behavioral economists and productivity experts will sometimes quantify the additive effects of small things to help people break habits. For example, If you smoke a pack a day in New York, you spend almost $5,000 a year. Over the next 20 years, quitting could save $174,547.63. If you stopped getting so much Starbucks, as I understand it, you could have a second home in Bermuda. If you spent 30 minutes per day showering and applying products, over the course of a long life—100 years, for ease of math—you would spend 18,250 hours washing. At that rate, not showering frees up about three years of your life.

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