1001 water-wise ways: The soap opera

Trouble-making baths in history: Elizabeth Siddal famously modelled in a tin bath for this Preraphaelite painting by John Millais. She got pneumonia; her father sued Millais for fifty pounds.

Trouble-making baths in history: Elizabeth Siddal famously modelled in a tin bath for this Preraphaelite painting by John Millais. She got pneumonia; her father sued Millais for fifty pounds.

One thing about using my bath to store water is the pleasure of climbing in and wallowing now and again. So last night, as I lay in blessed rainwater freshly harvested from my gutters, I considered a question I'd been asked earlier that day: how often DO we need to wash our bodies?

It's February, and as you may have read here, university residence administrators are coming up smack against young adults who believe that the right to shower every day is guaranteed in the Constitution; it's also the biggest water moan I hear from parents of teens (and even older children): how to get them to use less water in the shower. Folk are reluctant to give up washing rituals that are all but articles of religion: "But I HAVE to wash my hair every day! I couldn't leave the building otherwise!"

Here's a tip or rather an observation from my magic hairdresser: about a year ago, as her clients were washing their hair less and less, she noticed a steady improvement in the condition of their hair. Then their scalps. Another hairdresser noticed that dandruff was a thing of the past. Then the beauticians chimed in: they were seeing visible improvement in their customers' skins as they spent less time in the bath and shower.

So this is one carrot to be waved in front of those who believe that a daily top-to-toe shower, shave and hair-wash are essential to looking good: the opposite could in fact be true. Once I started mulling this over, I realised how much our washing culture is driven by advertising: all those body lotions? We need them because we bath/shower way more than is good for the natural health of our skin, scrubbing away at our natural protective oils. But beyond entitlement, habit and marketing: how often DO we need to wash ourselves?

Back to the commonsense practiced by our grandparents and many of our close, poorer neighbours, this is the mantra for daily self-cleansing with water: face, pits, bits and feet, and in that order, if we're using a bucket. Even this isn't quite accurate: the body parts we need to clean most often? Our hands. Faces don't actually need more than a dab with a wet facecloth (more marketing: all that cleansing, toning and moisturising is a huge great con, and can be reduced to quick, simple and cheap options, but a post for another day). That leaves bits, pits and feet, and I'll get to those, but for now, the skin all over the rest of our bodies does not need daily washing. Twice or even once is week is fine, and in fact optimal for skin health. There is no rational basis whatsoever for our addiction to daily immersion.

Of course commonsense kicks in here. If you're performing manual labour or you work in dirty conditions (and many of those who do simply don't have the option of bathing daily other than in a bucket), exercising strenuously, having a lot of sex, menstruating, living in a hot and/or sticky climate, working with soil or animals, or have a medical condition that requires strict cleanliness, then you're going to be a lot more comfortable if you can shower often. However: there are workarounds.

I've already written a lot about the joys of bidets, and they are the perfect solution for the pits and bits conundrum -- especially valuable for the sexually active and those having their period, also invalids and elders. One piece of advice people tell me they now regret following was the craze for ripping bidets out of their 80s bathrooms. Ironically, they were often advised to do so on the grounds that they wasted water -- whereas they're by far the most water-wise and comfortable form of washing that involves an indoor plumbing fixture.

But obviously, this is a long-term solution, so the trick is to rig your bathroom so that it works in a similar way: if your shower or bath has a shower hose that attaches or moves, squat wherever you're trapping the water (that's if you're not using your wonder new pressure sprayer featured here) and use the shower attachment on said bits and pits.

Daily strenuous exercise or labour still presents a problem; some dancers I know (and if you think horses sweat heavily, you've never been in the wings helping with costume changes at the ballet) are now showering in their leotards or exercise clothes, washing themselves and their gear in one fell swoop.

I'm still racking my brains about communal shower situations: some of us have humbly knuckled down to bucket baths, the daily washing method used by the majority of South Africans, but they do require privacy or the intimacy of a family situation. Maybe one option is to issue students in residences with buckets or sprayers, or to hang these from the walls in shower cubicles. Any other ideas to make this work?

And more on sudsy matters: spent an hour this morning browsing a local chain pharmacy for water-wise goodies, and I never knew there was such a vast variety of wet wipes: intimate wipes, baby wipes, feminine wipes, hygiene wipes, incontinence wipes, disinfectant wipes: I didn't see any biodegradable ones, though, and aiyiyiyi, that's a landfill problem brewing right there. I use a flannel and a small basin of warm water, but then I have off-grid water to play with. For now, I guess wet wipes trump water, especially if you are now washing your ticklish bits only every other day. BTW, wet wipes are not cheap, and not everyone has a kitchen in which to brew up their own -- recipe here; perhaps residences could issue students with a pack when they move in (but everyone repeat once again, DO NOT EVER FLUSH THEM, EVER -- blocked toilets are never fun, but less so in a drought, least of all when they're communal).

Bathroom design has a fascinating history, and there's a lot to be learned by diving down a Wiki rabbithole of Japanese bathroom design, the hammans and steam baths of the Middle East and Asia, and more. (In some tiny Japanese homes, the bathroom sink is attached to the toilet cistern, for instance.) One thing is clear, though: modern Western bathroom design is insanely wasteful, unsustainable, and not actually always effective. (Apparently showers should spray upwards, not downwards, for maximum cleansing and least water use. Who knew?)

Long-term (and we are in this for the long haul): we need to revamp basic Western bathroom design from scratch. En-suite bathrooms are among the worst (and most unhygienic) offenders: apart from anything else, who puts the source of the most moisture in the house feet away from the place with the most soft furnishings? Duvets, mattresses and billowing steam: this is NOT a good mix. Bedrooms with attached bathrooms belong in guesthouses and hotels, not private homes. The average middle-class two-or-three bedroomed home needs to revert to the system of one bathroom, which contains a bath (optional), shower and sink. There should then be a toilet with a sink for handwashing in a SEPARATE room. A bidet in one or both these rooms would be a damn fine idea. And no more spa baths, ever. That's what spas are for.

Last night's rainwater harvest bath. That's the colour it came out the gutters: same shade as champagne.

Last night's rainwater harvest bath. That's the colour it came out the gutters: same shade as champagne.

Helen Moffett