Can Shower Heads Make You Sick? Science Says There's Bacteria Up There, But It's Pretty Harmless

I feel like the cleanliness of my living space can sometimes affect my mental state, which is why I try to make sure my apartment is tidy and thoroughly scrubbed most of the time. But during all my years of making sure my bathroom is squeaky clean, I've never once given a thought to my shower head. This may have been a mistake on my part, because according to new research, bacteria can collect in your shower head, and it sounds pretty nasty, IMO. So can shower heads make you sick if there's a bunch of bacteria chillin' up there? It's possible, but long story short, you don't need to freak out about it.

Here's the deal: According to a press release from the Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, this new research set out to discover what kinds of bacteria are hiding in a typical shower head, how exactly they wind up there, and how they can affect your body. Per the press release, the researchers analyzed DNA collected from 656 showers in homes in the United States and in Europe. Their findings, which appear in mBio, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology, showed that large amounts of bacteria linked to certain kinds of lung infections can potentially build up in a shower head over time without proper cleaning and maintenance.

So, I know that might sound kind of scary, but rest assured, you don't have to swear off of showering forever.

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According to the study, it's all about where your community's tap water is coming from. Specifically, the study found that showers in Hawaii, southern California, Florida, and the New York City area are potential hotspots for this type of bacteria. The researchers also found that metal shower heads appear to be more welcoming environments for the bacteria than plastic ones, so that might be an easy switch that's worth considering. Really, though, what this ultimately comes down to is making sure that you're not skipping the shower head whenever you give your bathroom a nice, good scrub.

For a thorough cleaning, Prevention suggests soaking your shower head in vinegar for about an hour and scrubbing the nozzles. Overall, though, it's important to keep in mind that "people are exposed to bacteria every day—in dust, in the air, in food, through contact with other people, contact with their pets, their workspace," Matthew Gebert, a research technician in the Fierer Laboratory at CIRES, told Prevention, "and very little of it actually makes you sick." In other words, just because certain kinds of bacteria may be lurking in the shadows — whether they're in your shower head or elsewhere — that doesn't necessarily mean they'll actually affect you.

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Still, it doesn't hurt to know why your bathroom needs a good cleaning on the reg, and what the best practices are when it comes to your tap water. For instance, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the water from your shower or sink can potentially cause eye infections, especially if you wear contact lenses. In response to a question posed to the AAO about whether it's safe to get shower or tap water directly in your eyes, ophthalmologist Gary Hirshfield, M.D. explained, "Using tap water or homemade saline to rinse contact lenses has been associated with severe ocular infections with multiple pathogens including acanthamoeba." Translation: Stick to a saline solution that is specifically sold or prescribed to you for your eye health.

Additionally, if you're a huge fan of hot showers, make sure you're properly ventilating your bathroom after you fog up the place, because shower mold can pose a potential health risk as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indoor mold tends to grow in places with a lot of moisture, such as the bathroom or the kitchen. While this mold can sometimes lead to things like skin irritation, coughing, and even lung infections in the long-term, the best way to protect yourself from these mold-related health issues is to keep the humidity level of your home under control, and to be diligent about using bleach, soap, and water, or commercial mold-removal products, to keep everything sparkling clean.