The Best Way to Shower, According to Experts

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iStock.com/skynesher

Of all the necessities involved in personal hygiene, showering would appear to be the least challenging task. You stand under a water spray, lather up, and let your body’s accumulated bacteria go down the drain. If you feel like fiddling with the temperature, hot showers are said to “open your pores.” Cold showers are alleged to make you more alert. Tolerating either extreme is a sign of attrition. Throw in a loofah scrub and you’re good.

But what if we’ve been showering all wrong? What if there is an objectively correct way to get clean that contradicts much of what we’ve learned about bathing through observation and cartoons?

THE DIRTY TRUTH ABOUT GETTING CLEAN

A man lathers up in the shower
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If you’re lathering yourself up from head to toe, you’re doing it wrong, according to Rajani Katta, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Food Younger Skin Diet. “Generally speaking, you don’t need soap all over your body unless you’ve gotten really sweaty,” she tells Mental Floss. A thorough lathering isn’t going to hurt you, exactly, but soap and hot water strip away the skin’s natural oils, drying it out and causing irritation, discomfort, or even infection. Instead, Katta says, soap “should go under your arms, around your private parts, and wherever there’s a skin fold,” which harbor greater numbers of bacteria. (Go in whatever order you like: Katta says it doesn't matter.)

As for those long, hot showers that feel particularly good after a stressful day or during the winter: While they might be psychologically beneficial, they’re not doing your epidermis much good. If water is too cold or too warm, the cells and lipids that make up our skin barrier can develop reactions. (Let too-warm water blast you in the forearm for a minute and you’ll likely see it turn red.) “Temperature extremes, whether too cold or too hot, can cause skin irritation and inflammation,” Katta says. “Ideally, you’ll want to use lukewarm temperatures and limit showers to no more than 10 or 15 minutes.” The idea is to cleanse, not antagonize, the tissue.

According to Katta, shower frequency shouldn’t weigh too heavily on your mind. If you’re breaking a daily sweat owing to work or fitness, it’s a good idea to shower daily. Otherwise, and unless your dermatologist has advised differently due to a skin condition, showering multiple times weekly is sufficient.

THE SCIENCE OF SCRUBBING

A woman uses a bar of soap in the shower
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“Body washes have kind of taken over the world,” Katta says. “It’s interesting that my younger patients all seem to use body wash while older patients tend to gravitate toward bar soaps.”

In this case, older means wiser. According to Katta, body washes have more water content that bar soaps, which means they use more preservatives and other additives to prevent or inhibit mold and bacteria growth. In some cases, those ingredients can prompt allergic reactions. If you’ve ever used a wash and then found your skin irritated, that’s probably why. “Bar soaps tend to have less [additives],” Katta says. If a wash is gentle on your skin, it’s fine to use it, but don’t discount the standard soap chunk.

(And no, bar soap does not make it more likely you’ll transmit bacteria with repeated use. Two often-cited studies in 1965 and 1988 concluded bars contaminated with staph, E. coli, and other not-so-pleasant pathogens did not pass along the germs in subsequent handling. In its guidelines for handwashing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers hand and liquid soap to be of equal efficacy.)

Don’t bother with loofahs or washcloths. While it’s not terribly likely they could harbor bacteria, they’re no more effective at dispersing soap than your fingertips, and it’s possible people with sensitive skin could find them irritating.

Once you get to your head, Katta says that shampooing is a highly individual practice that doesn’t invite objective advice. Use whatever products you like. If you have dandruff, you might want to shampoo more frequently. You can even wash your hair first thing, before the rest of your body. The only practice you want to time out is shaving: Later in the shower is better, since the warm water has had time to soften hair follicles and reduce chances of skin irritation. Immediately after showering is also a good time to clip any Howard Hughes-esque nail overgrowth.

KEEP YOUR HEAD MOIST

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The most important part of a shower has nothing to do with the shower. It’s about not letting your skin lose its moisture. Don't rub yourself completely dry: Instead, pat yourself with a towel so you remain slightly damp and then immediately apply a moisturizer to take advantage of your post-shower skin hydration.

Katta doesn’t recommend a specific brand of moisturizer, but says that thicker formulations are best. For that reason, try not to opt for anything that comes in a pump bottle. “Anything in a bottle has a high amount of water and may not lock moisture into the skin well,” she says. “Look for a cream-based formulation or ointment in a tube.” Petroleum jelly reduces moisture evaporation from skin; other ingredients like dimethicone, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin can help lock in moisture.

If you’re wary about feeling like a greasy mess just before you leave the house, you can switch to a nightly showering routine. That way, Katta says, you can lube up without getting it on your work clothes.

Now you’re all clean. For information on how to keep your fanny sparkling, check out the best way to wipe.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

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iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

This Live Stream Lets You Eavesdrop on Endangered Killer Whales' Conversations

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iStock.com/Serega

Southern resident killer whales, which are usually found off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, are an endangered species. If you're lucky, though, you might be able to hear a pod of the killer whales chattering away from the comfort of your own home. A website spotted by The Kansas City Star lets you live stream the calls of killer whales from your phone or laptop. Dubbed Orcasound, it uses hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up oceanic sounds from two areas off the coast of Washington.

On the website, listeners can choose between the two locations. One is the Orcasound Lab in Haro Strait, which is situated off the coast of Washington's San Juan Islands—the "summertime habitat" of this specific ecotype of whale, according to the website. The other location is Bush Point at the entrance to Puget Sound, where the whales pass through about once a month in search of salmon. However, that hydrophone is currently being repaired.

So what do orcas sound like? They're loud, and they do a whole lot of whistling, whining, and clicking. You can hear a snippet of what that sounds like in a four-minute podcast uploaded to the Orcasound site.

There’s no guarantee you’ll hear an orca, though. "Mostly you'll hear ships," the website notes, but there's also a chance you'll hear humpbacks in the fall and male harbor seals in the summer.

The live stream isn't just for educational purposes. It also serves as a citizen science project to help researchers continue their studies of southern resident killer whales, which are in danger of starvation as Chinook salmon, their main food source, die off.

The makers of Orcasound are urging listeners to email ihearsomething@orcasound.net anytime they hear killer whales or "other interesting sounds." They can also log their observations in a shared Google spreadsheet. Eventually, developers of the site hope to roll out a button that listeners can click when they hear a whale, to make the process easier for people to get involved.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

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