Wait, Are Baths Kind of…Gross?

If your mind sometimes gets wrapped up in a shower vs. bath debate, I can’t blame you. There’s no denying that taking a bath is relaxing. Soaking in warm water, reading a book, maybe even sipping a glass of wine—it’s so simple yet feels so luxurious. Except there’s one thing that always keeps me from fully relaxing in the tub: I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I’m just sitting in a soup of my own sweat.

I’ve always wondered if I should be showering before I climb in to make sure all the grime of the day washes down the drain first. Is taking a bath even getting me clean? Or is sitting in the tub just kind of gross?

If these questions also plague your otherwise-soothing bath time, read on to learn what the experts have to say.

Whatever’s on your skin when you bathe can, naturally, wind up in the water.

That doesn’t automatically mean anything bad, though.

This may not be what you want to hear, but it’s the cold hard truth: There are tons of microorganisms that live on our skin. Just like the gut has a microbiome, so does the skin. “There are bacteria on every surface of your body, and you’ll never eradicate them by taking a shower or bath,” Philip Tierno, Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. “When you slough off dead skin in a bath or shower, the cells contain many microorganisms that are on your skin.” Beyond bacteria, these microorganisms can also include things like fungi.

So, yes, that means you’re essentially sitting in water filled with the normal flora that lives on your body already when you take a bath. The idea of it might make you squirm, but the reality is that it isn’t going to cause any health problems like a skin infection. “I wouldn’t be worried, from a microbiological standpoint, about getting infected,” Dr. Tierno says.

The exception? If you have any open wounds or cuts, then there’s a chance some bugs that live on the outside of your body can get inside your body and cause infection. But unless you have breaks in the skin, it’s not likely you’ll pick up something from your own body, Dr. Tierno says. Your skin generally does a damn good job of keeping microbes out, where they belong.

Baths can be irritating for people with sensitive skin.

Sitting in a bathtub may cause some issues for people with sensitive skin and conditions like eczema, says Teo Soleymani, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at UCLA Health. Sitting in stagnant water doesn’t allow oils and microorganisms on the skin to be rinsed off as well as a shower with running water, and for some people, this can perpetuate itchy rashes or acne, he says. Even the salts that end up on our skin’s surface after a good sweaty workout can be irritating for some people.

You also have to consider the soap you’re marinating in. “The other problem is that people tend to take baths with fragranced things, like soaps or bath bombs, and the longer you stay submerged in that solution, the greater likelihood you’ll have some sort of allergic reaction or some irritant dermatitis,” Dr. Soleymani says.

Soaking in fragranced soaps and other bath products can also throw off the pH of the vagina and cause irritation or even infection in some people, as SELF has previously reported.

Baths can also make the skin drier, so the American Academy of Dermatology suggests limiting baths to 15 minutes or less if you have a skin condition that makes your skin dry (like psoriasis or eczema).

Cleaning your tub often enough is key to avoiding bath-related skin issues.

While your own sweat and microorganisms aren’t likely to cause any problems, you can run into trouble if there are other microbes growing in the tub, Dr. Tierno says. This growth can lead to a pesky little phenomenon known as biofilm: a buildup of microorganisms, including various types of bacteria, that essentially stick together to form a film. You know that pink ring around the tub or drain? That’s biofilm.

“Any exposure to water usually results in some form of biofilm formation,” Dr. Tierno says. If you’re in a tub with biofilm, there’s a chance you can pick up some foreign bacteria, fungi, or other microorganism—whether it’s just growing on its own, or whether you share a bathtub with someone and it’s something they left behind. And that has the potential to cause everything from skin irritation to illness (depending on the microbe in question and if it just stays on your skin or enters your body in some way). Some microbes are harmless; others, like Staphylococcus, can cause a gnarly infection.

The bacteria in biofilm can cause some pretty nasty, hard-to-treat breakouts, Dr. Soleymani says. But know that there also has to be enough of a bug for it to cause an issue. Different microbes require different amounts of microbes to cause infection, Dr. Tierno says. There are many different things that factor into whether or not a microorganism is totally benign or causes a problem for you.

The best way to reduce your risk of picking up something from the tub is to keep it clean. Dr. Tierno says the only way to remove biofilm is by physically scrubbing it off with a stiff-bristled brush to break up the gunk, so you’ll want to do that in addition to using a commercial cleaner with disinfectant (look for one that explicitly says “disinfectant” on the label) that can effectively kill microbes like bacteria and viruses. (A diluted bleach solution does the trick, too.) Dr. Tierno notes that the best frequency depends on how many people use the tub and how often, but generally, if it gets some heavy use, a weekly clean is a good idea. If the bathtub use is infrequent for baths specifically, you can space out cleaning anywhere from every two weeks to every month, he says.

If you only use the shower the majority of the time, you still need to make sure the floor is clean to avoid buildup of microbes—the most likely one is the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. The same cleaning strategy as the tub is a good rule of thumb, just focus on the area on which you stand if you never actually use the whole tub.

A quick post-bath rinse can be a good idea.

Here’s the deal: If you want to take a bath, that’s obviously fine from an overall health standpoint (and hopefully a great, soothing experience for you). But it’s not a bad idea to give your skin a quick rinse after to make sure you get off all the soap (and any residual dirt, salt, or oil it’s clinging to). This is an even more important step if you have sensitive skin or any dermatological conditions like eczema, Dr. Soleymani says. You don’t need to take a full-on shower—you can use a cup to get some fresh water from the spigot and pour it over your skin as the final step before you get out and dry off.

But if you’ve been enjoying baths for years, have never had any skin issues from it, and would really rather not change your process? Keep doing you. Plenty of people never rinse off after a bath and they’re just fine, Dr. Tierno says. There are plenty of other things to worry about—so let yourself enjoy that relaxing soak.

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