The average American showers about four times a week, so you’d think we’d have the practice pretty well perfected. But you may be making some surprising mistakes in the shower stall that can take a toll on your skin—especially if you’re prone to dry skin or issues like eczema or psoriasis. Read on to learn the signs that you need to clean up your shower routine—and how to use your time under the spray to help, not hurt, your skin.
Is your skin is routinely flushed or blotchy after the shower? Consider that sign an SOS that you set the water temperature too high. “Heat dilates your blood vessels and increases circulation,” explains Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “Besides turning your skin red, this can cause inflammation that leads to itching and rashes.” To safeguard skin, use lukewarm water—mid-80°F is ideal (it’s roughly the temperature of a heated pool).
One of the benefits of taking a shower instead of a bath: A shower removes less moisture from your skin because there’s not as much prolonged contact with water. But those skin-soothing benefits go down the drain if you stand under the water too long. Even tepid water can wash away the natural oils that protect skin after long enough, especially if your skin is already dry or sensitive to begin with. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how long in the shower is too long (Dr. Gohara says five to eight minutes is a good goal), but less is definitely more if you want to keep your skin soft and smooth.
An easy way to speed things along so you can spend less time in the shower is to concentrate on the underarms, groin, and feet—the only areas that produce body odor. “Your arms and legs aren’t going to smell bad, so they don’t always need soap,” says Dr. Gohara. One spot that never needs to be washed is your vagina. “It’s entirely unnecessary, as the vagina is a ‘self-cleaning’ organ,” says Donnica Moore, MD, a woman’s health expert in Chester, New Jersey, and host of the podcast In the Ladies Room with Dr. Donnica. Not only is it unneeded, sudsing up down there can disrupt the pH balance of your vagina, which can lead to infection or irritation. For optimal hygiene, use a mild, hypoallergenic body wash on your palm to gently swab your external nether region.
Your skin is not a frying pan: “You don’t need to scrub it clean,” says Dr. Gohara. “If you’re using the right surfactant, it will do all the heavy lifting.” Traditional soap can strip skin’s natural, protective oils along with any dirt or impurities, so opt for a gentle body wash. Scan the ingredient list to be sure it doesn’t contain the ingredient sodium laurel sulfate, a surfactant (read: sudsing) that can be too harsh on skin. It’s fine to use a (clean) washcloth or a poof; just use gentle pressure as you swish them across your skin. When you’re done showering, pat—don’t rub—towel-dry skin and then apply moisturizer ASAP. Check out these tips for picking the right moisturizer for dry skin.
Razor burn, that is. To avoid skin irritation from shaving, David Bank, MD, a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, New York, says to always use a shaving cream or gel and a sharp razor. Blades become dull, which lead to nicks and cuts, after five to seven shaves, he reports. For the closest shave, shave against the direction of hair growth; if your skin is very sensitive (like around the bikini line), shave with the direction of the hair growth. For best de-fuzzing results, Dr. Bank advises waiting until the end of your shower to pick up your razor. “The heat and steam will help soften your hair, which makes it easier to get a close, clean shave.”
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