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2018.02.16-Bathing culture all over the world

Bathing culture all over the world

How often do we bath and how do we do it?

In the last couple of thousand years the world’s bathing culture underwent a very long maturation process. Different habits, beliefs and rules developed from country to country. What is good manners, what isn’t a decent thing to do, where one can do what, why behave a certain way and for how long? Several interesting forms of behaviour have characterised peoples’ relationship with washing and refreshing the body. This colourful and diverse picture has become somewhat blurred by the modern, globalised world, but there are still differences.     

In the middle of the 20th century a major change occurred. Tap water in households became a general phenomenon all over the world, and people didn’t have to visit public baths any more if they wanted to wash thoroughly. These days we go to a bath only occasionally. The numerous religious beliefs which have been tied to washing seem to disappear too.

How often should we take a bath?

In spite of the many changes there is something that hasn’t changed for centuries: the human body. Our body reacts to the current bathing trends relying on rules which are several thousand years old. Taking a bath every day in one’s home was considered to be a major achievement by 20th century men and women, but by the end of the century in richer states, especially in Western Europe, more and more people started questioning the necessity of bathing daily. We Hungarians were surprised to see that our guests, who were on holiday from some Western European country, only took a bath every 2-3 days. The explanation sounds logical: white-collar workers don’t sweat as much as blue-collar workers, therefore there is no need for them to bathe frequently; what is more, the amount of water that we use for daily bathing increases or ecological footprint very much. In addition to this, the skin doesn’t like soaking in water for a long time every day. Well, all three explanations are justifiable. However, we should differentiate between a quick shower and a long and water wasting bath. The latter isn’t economical at all and it is no good for the skin either. The human skin is covered by a thin layer of lipid, which makes sure that the skin stays healthy and it also protects it from becoming too dry. If we keep removing this layer by many long hot baths and by using various soaps and bath salts frequently, our skin will get very dry. The problem with this is that dry skin, which is deprived of its normal bacterial flora, is the perfect target for infections and fungal diseases. Rather paradoxically, washing too often with great intensity opens the gate for illnesses.               

In Hungary city dwellers tend to take a bath too often and we don’t really care about how much water is wasted.



Throughout history, the bath has always been a special place as regards manners and proper behaviour, because being nude is a touchy issue. The previous century brought many new things in the domain of gender roles too, and as a result of this, today there aren’t many spas where men and women are segregated. It was the bikini that started the revolution of the bathing suit, and today the debate is about whether women should be allowed to bathe topless if men are doing it. At the moment the general opinion about women bathing topless is more or less the same in European countries – but the emphasis here is on more or less. In certain countries such as Italy women are fined if they take their top off on the beach, while in other countries they aren’t fined but asked to put their swimsuit top back on. In certain countries it is alright to go topless on the beach. Nudist beaches are still the only place where people can enjoy the sun and the water totally nude. This means that being naked is forbidden on beaches and in spas. This is true even in those countries where bathing naked have great traditions, such as Germany or the states of the former Yugoslavia.              

There are baths where it isn’t forbidden but compulsory to be naked. For instance in some traditional Japanese spas – these are called onsens – men and women have been bathing together in natural hot springs for centuries and they are still doing so. It is very interesting that another thing is forbidden in these spas: wearing a tattoo. If somebody has a tattoo and visits an onsen, they are either escorted out or asked to cover it with a water-resistant plaster. In Japan only the members of organised crime syndicates have tattoos, so tattooed guests aren’t welcome even if the person is an average European with a small mandala tattoo on their shoulder.