Black folks on social media have been in a tizzy since a variety of celebrities of a certain hue have reopened the dreaded bathing conversation of yesteryear.
Actors Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher kicked off the conversation in an interview on the Armchair Expert podcast, during which they said they neither bathe their children or themselves with soap often. The idea of not using soap or bathing daily sent social media in a tailspin with a bevy of unflattering comments directed at the celebrity family's bathing practices.
Shortly thereafter, more celebrities joined the conversation in favor of not exactly bathing, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Terry Crews, followed by the alternate opinions of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jason Momoa and Cardi B, who all spoke in favor of daily soap rituals. This is not the first time such a conversation has shaken the celebrity world, as Brad Pitt and Zac Efron stirred this very dirty pot just a few years ago.
Time and time again, dermatology experts have not sided with either end of the conversation and rather have extended details on best bathing practices. But turns out skincare including the use of soap and water varies between races, not just from a health standpoint, but also historically speaking.
According to Pamona Purdy, a dermatology physician assistant in Sacramento, California, while routine cleaning is healthy, both over-cleansing and under-cleansing can cause key issues.
"Under cleansing leads to possible overgrowth of bacteria, oil and dirt. This can cause the skin to become irritated by the buildup and breaks in the skin which can lead to secondary infections," Purdy told Blavity. "Not cleansing the skin can also lead to breakouts, dryness and unwanted odor. Over cleansing, which is a frequent problem I see, can lead to dryness and irritation and can worsen some skin conditions like acne and eczema where the top layer is already dysfunctional."
In the event of any of the aforementioned skin concerns, Purdy said she will sometimes advise patients not to bathe so frequently, especially in the case of eczema, a skin condition she said affects Black children at higher rates than their non-Black peers.
"It is very important to find a balance of washing with the right cleansers with the right frequency. By doing this it allows the skin to be cleansed but not stripped of its oils to avoid flare-ups of eczema," Purdy said. "I will sometimes advise patients to bathe every other day or if they are very active to just apply soap to the 'cracks and crevices' and rinse the rest. Sometimes people are washing their children several times a day and their skin is itching, burning, dry and scaly because the overwashing is causing more harm than good."
Even though it's dermatologist-approved, celebs like Cardi B find this logic "itchy." And while she is not alone in her thought process, this frame of mind may actually be generationally passed down from ancestors of the Reconstruction Era.
Wassup with people saying they don’t shower ? ???? It’s giving itchy.
— iamcardib (@iamcardib) August 10, 2021
According to Jason Perkins, Ph.D., historian of African American studies, emphasis on bodily cleanliness in the Black community may very well be political.
"While its plausible to draw a connection between slavery and the emphasis on bodily cleanliness, there is a particular politics around Black appearance and presentation," Perkins told Blavity. "Because African Americans had endured centuries of anti-Black stigmatization in the form of crude stereotypes, racist imagery and ideologies that began during slavery and survived long thereafter, various groups within the African American community placed importance on comportment — manners, morals, attitudes, behaviors — and appearance."
Perkins, who has previously served as a professor and now works in educational publishing and curriculum design, pointed to Frederick Douglass as a political example of how appearance is historically relevant to Black people.
"Frederick Douglass became the most photographed person in the 19th century in large measure to counter the racist caricaturing of African Americans in American visual culture and 19th-century minstrels," Perkins said. "I think you can make the argument that some of these politics like respectability and self-fashioning have been passed down through the generations. Moreover, other factors like industrialization, urbanization, the rise of consumer culture, etc. may also play a role in the emphasis on cleanliness and presentation. Certainly, something can be said about how the denial and contestation of African Americans' human rights under the brutal conditions of slavery and Jim Crow have shaped behavior."
Regardless of the deeply historical aspects of bathing preferences, there are still some best practices anyone should feel comfortable following.
Purdy recommends the use of pH-balanced soaps, short showers and moisturizers, but says nothing about a general rule for frequency of bathing, as that directly relates to your own skin and how it responds to the elements and soaps.
"Skin is the largest organ with many functions including protection, maintaining moisture, heat regulation. Cleansing is important to remove oils, dirt, environmental pollutants and the act of rubbing the skin releases skin cells so it can do what it is supposed to do. Routine cleaning leads to healthy, well-balanced and hydrated skin. It also slows down the signs of aging like dull, dry, scaly skin," Purdy said.