“Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth.”
“Don’t leave lights on.”
“Reduce reuse recycle.”
Environmental activist or not, you’ve probably heard every one of these classic sustainability-action driven messages a thousand times. These catchphrases get throw around so much that it’s easy for them to lose their meaning and weight. But what would it really mean to take them seriously? If you believe that individual lifestyle shifts can make a difference for our planet, as I do, each of these messages is truly a call to action. This blog post is about my experience living out the commonly heard environmentalist message: “take shorter showers.”
All “take shorter showers” means is, well, shorten the length of time you spending showering. It also implies no baths. But I take the message of “take shorter showers” more broadly: make showers as environmentally neutral as possible. You might laugh, but it is my belief (I’m probably going to get shown up by a reader), that I am now on the cutting edge of shower sustainability. Over the past four years, my shower routine has undergone a complete transformation.
But first, let’s be real: lengthy, hot, soapy showers are awesome. Nothing wakes you up better in the morning or relaxes you more after a long day of work, school or exercise. A proper shower makes you feel clean, fresh and happy. But lamentably, showers are not the most sustainable activities. They involve hot water, typically heated with energy. They involve soap, usually packaged in plastic. Sure, not as bad as driving a Hummer everywhere or consuming cattle products thrice a day, but not great. Other than shortening our showers, how else can we improve?
My quest for sustainable showers had humble beginnings. In fact at age 17, I was a regular shower criminal. Obsessed with singing opera in the concert hall acoustics of my bathroom, I let my showers drag on and on. My water was scorching hot and pressure colossal. I generously oozed out body wash, shampoo and conditioner, all indiscriminately purchased from brands evaluated solely on their coolness and cheapness, with no considerations for ethics or the environment.
Then I heard about the “No Poo” method, and my bathroom life was forever changed.
The revolutionary insight of this movement was not to stop pooping in the shower, because I didn’t do that before. No one does. No Poo is actually short for No Shampoo.
Indeed, I do not use shampoo (or any hair product for that matter). I have only had shampoo or conditioner in my hair once in the past four years, and it was not by choice (see Appendix A). I’m guessing you’re now imagining my hair to be super greasy and gross. Well, I promise it’s not. It’s probably as clean and healthy as yours!
The No Poo method involves cutting out shampoo completely and just rinsing your hair with water. While there may be more grease in the first few weeks, it doesn’t take long for your scalp to learn to regulate both the good and bad oils in your hair. At that point, taking a soapless shower provides the same feel good cleanness as the shampooy version. If something nasty gets in your hair, like chlorine, natural solutions like apple cider vinegar work splendidly.
Whether you believe the quasi-scientific explanation of improved scalp health or not, ditching shampoo has many benefits, including affordability and convenience. But sustainability is a main driver for my water-only showers as well. As someone who’s working hard to reduce their waste output (see blog posts about Plastic Free July), I’m grateful I’ve saved so many shampoo and conditioner bottles over the past 4 years! Moreover, the next 60-100 years won’t need shampoo either! You also guarantee no animal testing or unwanted chemicals. Going soap-free completely is another story, but I only buy bar soap to reduce packaging, and only use it when I really need to. Maybe I’ll go soap-free eventually, I’ll keep you posted.
2013 was also the year I was struck by another fascinating shower trend: cold showers.
I was originally inspired by this Ted Talk by cold shower advocate Joel Runyon. I’ve also heard a lot about the potential health benefits of cold showers (improved circulation, etc.) but for me it’s really about two things: willpower and sustainability. As you can probably imagine, after waking up shivering in the middle of winter, undressing and hopping into a freezing cold shower is not the easiest thing to do. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. It truly does require a psychological push. Fortunately daily practice builds the routine, and eventually the fear wanes. You also come to enjoy the cold water. If you’ve ever taken a polar dip in a cold lake or ocean, you knowing the feeling of overcoming that fear, and how rewarding it is after (see Appendix B). I step out of the shower feeling alive, alert and ready to take on the day.
But chilly showers are also fantastic because a) they use no hot water, and b) tend to be short! I don’t even have time to get through my favourite opera pieces! Over time the energy and water savings are quite significant.
The final, perhaps most important step in my sustainable shower quest is simply reducing the frequency of showers. I know it really does depend a lot on the person and the level of daily activity, but I’ve managed over the past few months from relying on a daily shower to wake me up and launch me into my day, to only showering a few times a week when I really need a good clean. I miss taking cold showers every day, but because they’re more irregular now, I am always sure to make them extra frigid.
Maybe the environmentalist catchphrase should say: “take short, freezing cold showers infrequently and never use soap or shampoo.” In the end, I admit that even if all of us did this, we would hardly be tackling the major global problems of water shortage, excess indoor heating demands, and consumer waste. But maybe it’s just a small piece in the larger sustainable puzzle. And if you do want more tips on sustainable lifestyle changes that make a difference, stay tuned to this blog!
Common Energy | External Team & Zero-Waste Team Co-Coordinator
Appendix A – The Tragic End of My No Poo Streak
Sadly, my shower resume recently endured a massive blemish. While on exchange in Sweden last fall, I avoided getting a haircut at all costs. Men’s haircuts couldn’t be found for less than $40 CAD, an exorbitant price I was never willing to pay (I usually try to keep it below $15). But the perfect opportunity for a cheap trip presented itself while I was travelling in Rome, Italy. The problem as I strolled into Machete Barbershop on the last night of my trip was language. The hair stylist spoke no English, and the receptionist only knew a bit. But not to fear, I was prepared for this reality: I had googled key words like “razor,” “scissors,” “top,” “sides,” “flow” etc. before entering the shop. My desired haircut description, a mix of English, broken Italian, and hand symbols, was on point. But what I didn’t plan for was the pre-cut hair wash.
The hair dresser took me over to those reclined neck chairs with sinks in the back (you know what I mean). He started rinsing my hair, then reached for the shampoo. I protested with all the expressiveness I could produce. “Solo acqua” I pleaded! Surprised, he seemed to agree. A breath of relief. He then proceeded to lather my hair with shampoo and conditioner! Streak over! 3.5 years of No Poo ended by an Italian hairdresser. Fortunately I’m back on track. I’ll be sure to post when I beat my high score of 3.5 years sometime in 2020!
Appendix B – The Coldest Shower Imaginable
Daily cold showers fostered in me both a tolerance and appreciation for cold water. This made my experience polar bear dipping in the Arctic Circle near Kiruna, Sweden, all the more meaningful. Imagine the most spectacular wood-fired sauna, floating (but stationary) on a large dock on a frozen lake. If it’s hard to imagine that, look at the picture below. On the floor of the sauna was a trap door that opened directly into the lake water beneath us. The water temperature was barely above freezing. My body temperature was barely below boiling! Jumping in and out of that astonishing cold water was among the most heavenly mind-body experiences of my life. When going from boiling to freezing to boiling got tiresome, we would simply step outside, look up, and bask in the glory of the northern lights. Incredible.