We think of showers as a place of sanctuary—refreshing, relaxing and cleansing. But did you know this daily ritual can be unhealthy?
If you’re wondering why a practice meant to get rid of dirt, sweat and grime would be bad for you, start with what’s supposed to clean you in the first place: water. Municipal water has likely been disinfected with chlorine along with other agents to protect against bacteria. Not only is water itself drying to the skin and hair, but so is the chlorine, says Jessica J. Krant, MD, MPH, dermatologist at the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. On top of that, many cities now treat water with chloramine, another type of disinfectant that lasts longer than chlorine.
Dry skin may not be the only concern. When chlorine is added to water, it combines with other compounds to form byproducts called trihalomethanes (THMs), which can trigger the production of cell-damaging free radicals in the body. And it can get even worse: Chlorine creates a substance called chloroform, which is “a known animal carcinogen and thus a suspected human carcinogen,” says Lance Wallace, MD, guest researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The best way to protect yourself is to purify your water with a filter, according to Matthew Waletzke, certified building biology environmental consultant at Healthy Dwellings. Luckily, shower filters are affordable, ranging from about $40 to $150. Some attach between the pipe and showerhead, while others come built into a showerhead, some of which have multiple spray or massaging features. Either way, installation is fairly simple—you just may need a wrench to twist off a tight head. Waletzke describes the three main types of shower filters: carbon, vitamin C and KDF (kinetic degradation fluxion). Carbon filters, the same kind used by Brita for drinking water, are the most common. They work by attracting and bonding the impurities to the carbon as the water passes through. Carbon is the least expensive option, but also the least effective because heat from the water diminishes its ability to remove chemicals.
KDF filters are made of copper and zinc and are very effective at removing chlorine, metals, bacteria and sediment. When the filter comes in contact with the harmful contaminants, it causes a chemical reaction that renders many of them harmless. Chlorine, for instance, turns into benign, water-soluble chloride salt. KDF shower filters last for over a year and work well in warm or hot water. The downside is that they don’t filter out chloramines and are less effective with low-pressure showerheads.
Vitamin C filters are the best option, but also the priciest, and you have to change them out about every six months. Vitamin C neutralizes about 99 percent of the chlorine and removes most chloramine and sediment as they pass through, while other filters remove only 20 to 80 percent of chlorine. (If you want some added benefits, Aroma Sense offers vitamin C filters that contain essential oils with purported aromatherapeutic properties, like lavender for relaxation and eucalyptus to stimulate mental activity.)
If you have well water, you’re not necessarily off the hook. “Well water can become contaminated from runoff from farms, pesticides and fertilizers,” says Waletzke. Unfortunately, shower filters generally can’t eliminate microscopic bacteria from the soil, he says. You should have your well water tested, and if there’s considerable contamination, consider a whole-house filtration system, which can run up to $1,000.
Regardless of your water source, Waletzke suggests keeping your filter clean. “Remove it every six months, soak it in white vinegar overnight and rinse [it] off to be safe.” And always opt for a metal head over a plastic one, he says, adding that bacteria can build up more easily on plastic. He also steers clients away from vinyl shower curtains, which contain chemicals, and recommends nylon or polyester ones instead.
For a healthier shower, you may want to change your shower habits as well. First, shorten your shower time to keep skin and hair from drying out, suggests Krant. Opt for a soap-free bar or body wash, which doesn’t remove as much oil from the skin, and moisturize immediately afterward. As for hair, “wash it as rarely as possible to allow some natural oils to keep the hair shafts moisturized,” Krant adds. “Between washing days, a dry shampoo can perk up hair.” And since hot water also strips oil from skin and hair, train yourself to take cooler showers.
Another reason to dial back the heat: Cold water can be therapeutic, energizing and mood-boosting, according to Peter Bongiorno, co-director of Inner Source Health in New York. Cold causes our superficial blood vessels in the skin to constrict, making blood travel from the surface of the body to the core to conserve heat. This bathes the brain and vital organs in fresh blood. A good reason to grin and bear it.