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For as long as I can remember, my mom has been a big proponent of baths. Morning, night, doesn’t matter, she’s taking a bath unless the setup absolutely does not allow for her to sit down. I never thought to question her love of baths until I got older, and once I opened myself up to the idea that perhaps her behavior was a bit strange, the questions came rolling in: First of all, who has the time? Do daily baths make your fingers permanently prune-y? Isn’t it just, like, sitting in a vat of one’s own dirt? Shouldn’t a long soak be enjoyed sparingly so you can appreciate its luxuriousness?
Needless to say, I’m a shower gal. They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re convenient. Not to mention, have you ever seen a typical twentysomething’s NYC apartment? You’d need to spend hours cleaning to get the tub to the point where you can sit down without worrying about contracting some weird infection.
This debate — bath versus shower — is one that many folks on the internet, especially #TeamBath members, feel strongly about (the debate over which wastes more water is just as fraught), so I decided to speak with two dermatologists and see if I could definitively declare one the winner. Below, the pros and cons of each.
Of the two options, baths are, without a doubt, the more relaxing, which dermatologist Doris Day, MD, says can be great for your skin in the long run. “You can add ingredients into the bathwater to help treat the skin, which doesn’t work in the shower,” she says. “If you have aches and pains, you can add epsom salt. If you have eczema, dry, irritated skin, or a sunburn, you can add oatmeal, whole milk, and honey.”
Dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, adds that baths can lower cortisone levels, which in turn helps delay premature aging and reduce acne. She recommends using the soak-and-smear technique (soak for 10 minutes, then pat on moisturizer or oil as soon as you step out), especially if you have skin that tends to get dry. “If you forget the smear part, you will be worse off than before the bath because all the water evaporates out of the skin and leaves your skin dehydrated,” she says.
Dr. Bowe also recommends avoiding bubbles and any other products that foam. That’s typically a sign that they contain detergents, which can strip the skin of natural, good-for-you oils. Keep body washes to showering, says Dr. Bowe. Soaking in them for too long will dry out your skin. Another aspect of baths that can put your skin in danger? The heat level. If your bath is too hot, you’re at risk of parching your skin in the long run.
And finally, put aside your worries about baths being unhygienic. Dr. Day says sitting in bathwater is far from filthy, as I had assumed. “The dirt tends to settle away from the skin and body. It gets diluted in the entirety of the bathwater,” she says. “Most people aren’t rolling around in mud, so we’re not very dirty.”
But, say you’re competing in a Tough Mudder soon? You’re going to want to read on.
Aw, the good old shower. Dr. Bowe says that if you work out regularly — or wear a lot of makeup — you should definitely opt for one over a bath. “Showers are more hygienic [in these cases] because you are rinsing all those particles down the drain, rather than bathing in them,” she says.
Another time when a shower is preferable? Shampoo-and-conditioner days. “Not only is it difficult to fully rinse shampoo out in a bath, but sitting in a bath full of shampoo can strip skin of natural oils,” says Dr. Bowe.
Like with baths, the temperature of your shower is crucial for determining just how beneficial it will be, Dr. Bowe says. “If you are prone to dry skin, keep showers lukewarm and short. Long, hot showers can really dry out the skin,” she says. This also applies to your hair: “A cool rinse will help seal hair cuticles, resulting in shine and locking in moisture,” she adds.
Well, it’s not as cut-and-dry as I had hoped it would be. Dr. Day says the choice mostly comes down to personal preference and location. “In New York City, it’s really a space issue!” We feel that.
Dr. Bowe, on the other hand, is in my camp. “I think daily showers are better than baths, but save a bath for a special night (once or twice a week) when you really want to unwind,” she says. But if you’re like my mother and don’t want to give up your beloved bath time, she has a workaround. “You can continue to bathe daily if you prefer that, but if you are still unsure and like the idea of taking a bath to relax, you can always shower first to get yourself clean before enjoying the time to relax.” In other words: Have your cake and eat it, too.