Sweat -- do I have to wash it off (besides for smell purposes)?
April 11, 2013 1:48 AM   Subscribe

I've been looking for info on showering/bathing in relation to sweating and whether it's sanitary or not. I can only seem to find articles that basically say "yeah, you need to shower cause you'll smell" but can't find anything that confirms whether or not it's actually sanitary or not e.g. infections. What do ya'll think/know?

PS - I understand that many of you posting will most likely not be doctors.
posted by defmute to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Anectodal - the salt that builds up on your skin as you dry will probably dry out your skin.
posted by OHSnap at 2:13 AM on April 11, 2013

I'd think the most likely issue would be skin chafing due to moisture and/or salt build-up. Eventually, over a long-ish time period, that could lead to skin breakage, which would allow bacteria from the sweat to enter and cause infection.

I'd also expect that there would have to be an unusual set of circumstances to cause this (now showering for a long time, whilst sweating on multiple occasions, in the same clothes, possibly in hot/humid weather conditions). I doubt that it's a problem if you just veg out in sweaty clothes for a couple of days.

And yeah - not a doctor, or even close. :)
posted by Salamander at 2:32 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing, that smell? It's coming from bacteria stewing in your post-exercise juices. Sweat helps creates those gross, sticky conditions so ideal for certain bacterial and fungal growth. Not washing allows all those nasty grungies to hang around and party with all the dead skin cells you're also sloughing off, particularly in the moist, damp, and dark crevasses that don't dry out so readily. This can definitely result in infections of all sorts. Fungal infections like athlete's foot and jock itch especially come to mind, but it's easy enough to imagine something more sinister festering in that overripe armpit. Remember, human bodies are generally pretty filthy at the best of times, so being drenched in sweat is only going to amplify the problem.
posted by Diagonalize at 2:33 AM on April 11, 2013 [13 favorites]

Umm, oh yeah. I forgot about fungus.

Good points from Diagonalize. And yes, pits/genitals/butt cracks are probably the most vulnerable areas. Ugh.
posted by Salamander at 2:36 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before running water, the daily shower was not a thing. It doesn't sound as if people were constantly getting dreadful infections, but it would be interesting to explore whether the lack of bathing aided the spread of disease or infection in open wounds.

posted by bunderful at 3:56 AM on April 11, 2013

Some people are more prone to fungal issues than others. It can manifest as all kinds of things, including serious acne or cysts on your body. Before daily showers were available, people didn't live as long (for a variety of reasons), put up with more problems in general (some of which had real consequences for quality of life), and had arguably lower standards for personal appearance. Whatever your results from not showering, you live in a world full of people who are showering daily, and will be judged accordingly.
posted by amtho at 4:00 AM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

In my experience, not washing in any way for a week while travelling through the desert (and yes, it was hot and I was on a motorbike, so: dust) led to nothing worse than smelling pretty ripe. I felt slightly sticky, but that was all.

I'm not saying that things like rashes, infections and so on can't happen this way, but one week did not do it for me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:06 AM on April 11, 2013

I've been on military excercises up to two weeks without seeing a shower. And yes, I probably smelled pretty ripe afterwards. But as longs as you keep reasonably dry, sweat on your skin is not a health issue. Hygiene-wise, you should wash your hands and around all body openings. Everything else is optional.
posted by Harald74 at 4:18 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

At least twice a year I go a week+ (Friday night to the next Sunday night) without bathing while on a road trip in the Mountain West. I do put on deodorant and apply athlete's-foot powder to my junk and feet every or two. By the end of it, I'm funky, to say the least; but my skin is usually clearer at the end.
posted by notsnot at 4:47 AM on April 11, 2013

This may be information to actively ignore, but by yoga teacher used to tell us not to wash off the sweat from doing yoga because it was beneficial.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:04 AM on April 11, 2013

In Packing for Mars Mary Roach writes about NASA and Soviet studies on hygiene for astronauts, which involved lots of non-bathing and wearing the same underwear for weeks. Not much active sweating, but those studies might be relevant to your question (plus the book is a hilarious read). The conclusions were that underwear absorbs a ton of skin oil and general grunge and helps keep us clean and healthy. Of course, most of the volunteers were just dying for a shower by the end of the study ...
posted by Quietgal at 6:07 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm no doctor, but I've always heard that the most important thing for avoiding germs is washing your hands and face. Your hands, because they touch all sorts of things that are covered in other people's infectious bacteria and viruses, such as doorknobs and computer keyboards. And your face, because you touch it with your hands a lot and it's full of holes through which germs can easily enter your body. I think that if you're cleaning those regularly, you're unlikely to substantially increase your risk of illness by failing to clean the rest of your body (assuming that you don't, like, regularly run your calves over old, wet, kitchen sponges and then lick your calves, which I'd imagine would cause exposure to unusually high levels of germiness from that part of your body).
posted by decathecting at 6:47 AM on April 11, 2013

You should read up on the skin's acid mantle.
posted by nanook at 7:29 AM on April 11, 2013

Out here in the Wild West, people go to huntin' camp. Not me. Other people. They spend weeks out in the backcountry huntin' and not showerin'. Reportedly this is all fine, nobody gets a fungus, and they can't even tell they smell because they all do.
posted by HotToddy at 7:43 AM on April 11, 2013

I went camping for 10 days and as a result missed quite a few showers. My skin broke out with a couple disgusting pimples the likes of which I had not seen since high school. And so yeah that's basically just a small skin infection.
posted by whoaali at 8:13 AM on April 11, 2013

not washing in any way for a week while travelling ... led to nothing worse than smelling pretty ripe.

I read (in a long-ago, forgotten article) that the sweat-smell from an unwashed human 'plateaus' at about seven days, then gets no worse.
posted by Rash at 9:08 AM on April 11, 2013

I'd expect that the relative humidity would make a difference in the liklihood of fungus. Out west, or in the desert, you'd _want_ as much moisture for your skin as possible. Here in NC, in the land of 1000 allergies and mosquitoes, sometimes you need more dryness. In Florida, that's another thing entirely.

And it might also matter where your ancestors hail from.
posted by amtho at 9:24 AM on April 11, 2013

If you are relatively skinny and naked or wearing loose fitting natural fiber or breathable synthetic clothing mostly outdoors in a hot dry place where the sweat can dry? No worries. If you are have skin rolls, are encased in non breathable or rubber/ plastic clothing and you are in a wet place or worse, a cold wet place? Trenchfoot city. You will start growing all kinds of nasties in short order even if you barely exercise. You are always sweating after all (insensible perspiration) and if nothing ever dries out, gunk will grow.

I have found mushrooms growing in my boots stored inside overnight when doing fieldwork in the rainforest. People I know really have had mild cases of trenchfoot there too. It's kind of horrifying.
posted by fshgrl at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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