To wash or not to wash

Hygiene is a relatively new idea in the Western world. An early recognition of the benefits of washing came in the 1840s when doctors noted that hand washing could reduce childbirth fever. The idea of “germs” had been kicked around for several centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that Pasteur proved, through a series of experiments, that germs were transmitted from one source to another. The previous idea was that they and things such as flies arose spontaneously. In 1865, Lister developed the idea of antiseptics, and in 1890, the country doctor Robert Koch came up with his postulates to prove the cause of disease. There was initial push back to germ theory –people didn’t want to be held responsible for making others sick. Even when germs were accepted, hygiene was regarded by some as “for sissies.” By the mid 1950s, films such as this one with Soapy, a somewhat haunted bar of soap, spread the gospel about hygiene. At last, people knew enough to keep clean. Now, the idea of frequent cleaning is being debated.

When I heard about the movement to not wash your hair, the no-poo movement, I knew it wasn’t for me. My hair is too fine and being a teacher and around a lot of people, most of whom tower over me since I’m 5′ 1″, their invisible pathogens fall on my head throughout the day. To be safe, I wash my hair every night, at least during the week. But is this over-kill? Do germs stick on your hair? The answer to this question is: Yes. But.

A study done by several researchers in Singapore, including some from Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Singapore, with the title “Bacteria Display Differential Growth and Adhesion Characteristics on Human Hair Shafts” says that some bacteria cling to your hair while others simply sit on it.

They “showed the colonization and adherence of E. coli and P. aeruginosa on hair shafts, where P. aeruginosa, which tends to not be too dangerous to people with normal immune systems, was one bacteria that stuck to hair, formed a biofilm

E. coli inhabited only the edges of the cuticle scales..this study demonstrate(d) significant antibacterial effects of human hair shafts.”

Bottom line, yes germs stick to your hair but your hair can fight them off to an extent. Hair-derived antimicrobial proteins or peptides have been identified in hair shafts (Adav et al., 2018; Subbaiah et al., 2018).

Shampoo washes away germs on hair. However, grease from your hair can also kill germs. A threat may come from hairbrushes, which have been shown to contain fungal spores ( March 31, 2021, Infection and Drug Resistance)

How often should you wash your hair? It depends on the hair! It’s okay to wash it every day if it is fine because fine hair collects sebum more rapidly. Curly hair uses the sebum to make the curl so once a week can work for curly locks. African hair can go a week or two without washing. However, hair can trap pollen. Allergies can create the need to wash or rinse your hair more often.

Likewise, you should wash more often if you smoke or work with pesticides or other toxins.

What about beards? Beards are very germy and possibly a symbol of White Supremacy and anti-femininism. Beards need to be washed and brushed several times a week to remain sanitary. Wiggling a beard beneath a facial mask can release bacteria. However, having a beard doesn’t seem to be associated with being more sickly. Beards fall in the category of possibly being more of a danger to others. Beards haven’t been studied a lot.

Last but not least, there is the question of pubic hair–it is a natural cushion which will prevent STDs or is it germy and teaming with pheromones? Believe it or not, how this area is treated differs geographically. An interesting thing about pubic hair is that each person has a unique bacterial combination in this spot, with cohabiting couples sharing bacteria. However, like head hair, washed pubes are not overly germy. In fact, lack of pubic hair has been associated with a higher frequency of genital warts, herpes, and papillomavirus (HPV). However, you can and do give your mostly harmless germs to another via pube touching.

What happens when a person doesn’t bathe or shower regularly? A skin condition including a painful rash, can develop from bacteria, dead skin cells, and wax. Do you need to wash every day? No. A short shower every other day can work.

Of course, numerous diseases are spread by unclean hands. Even harmless bacteria can cause a nasty infection under certain situations, including entering a wound. As with pubic hair, each person has their own bacterial skin colonies and too much washing can damage skin and make way for new, less desirable bacteria. However, washing is necessary to remove bacteria from the skin. As with hair, some leeway depending on the situation is advised. Also along the same lines as the hair brush study, towels can be a source of bacteria and should be washed every two days.

Anyone with acne has probably been told that it is caused by bacteria and this is true. However, beneficial bacteria can help fight acne. Over-washing your face removes helpful bacteria and oils. Studies have found that products containing aforementioned lactobacillus (a type of bacteria usually found in yogurt) are effective in treating acne. Probiotic acne medication is being developed. Some companies are looking into probiotic make up. The problem with the later is that make-up itself can harbor germs and adding anything to help stop dangerous germs will also kill the probiotics. And, it’s not been proven that makeup with probiotics helps skin. Probably your best bet for giving your skin a boost of good bacteria is a yogurt face mask, which could increase moisture and elasticity.

Above: before and after a yogurt treatment on an over-washed hand

We each carry around our own little cloud of bacteria, controlled by our own natural antimicrobials. In fact, our bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by 10:1! Hygiene is needed to prevent invasion from outside germs, but we need to be aware that over-washing can stress our clouds and our skin and hair. However, other people might not always want to smell your cloud and they might not want to share your bacteria, so do wash when needed.

Three germs on dirty cloud of bad smell. Each of us carries around our own cloud of bacteria, some helpful and some not.

2 thoughts on “To wash or not to wash

  1. I’m half-bald, so I assume I need wash my hair only half as often as recommended. As for the rest of me, I take a bath or shower once a year, whether I need it or not.

    Seriously, though, thank you for this informative post….though I think I’ll skip the yogurt face mask, because I don’t want anything on my face that looks better than my natural face.

    Like

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