An object as ordinary as a loofah shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, when it comes to the question of how often you should switch your loofah — or whether you should even use one in the first place — the popular bathtime accoutrement can quickly become an object of dissent.
Technically defined, a “loofah” is a rough, sponge-like material derived from a dried-out luffa plant. The word is also used colloquially to describe spherical swaths of plastic netting (a.k.a. bath poufs). Whether plastic or plant-based, loofahs are meant to enhance cleansing — both by bolstering soap suds and sloughing dead skin cells. Another attractive quality: loofahs are, ostensibly, reusable — at least according to some people. (Cue the dissent.)
My boyfriend is of the belief that a plastic mesh pouf has an indefinite lifespan, as evidenced by his limp, sagging scrubber that seems to have become a permanent fixture in our shower. I, on the other hand, have asserted that loofahs should be replaced, lest they redistribute the grime of showers’ past (shudder). To answer the polarizing question of whether you need to replace your loofah — and, if so, how often? — I asked two dermatologists to weigh in. Below, the dirt on bath poufs.
How gross are loofahs, really?
Admittedly, loofahs do feel lovely. According to Boston-based dermatopathologist Gretchen Frieling, MD, they may even stimulate blood flow. Nevertheless, the benefits might not be worth the potential pitfalls. According to California-based dermatologist, Amelia K. Hausauer, MD, loofahs of any type are a no-go. “I never recommend loofahs,” she asserts, “because they easily harbor bacteria in their small crevices.” Add shower or bathwater into the mix, and you’ve created a moist, warm breeding ground for said bacteria. “Loofahs and sponges alike can harbor mold — as well as germs, dead skin cells, and remnants of dirt, oil, and grime that we scrub off our bodies,” adds Dr. Frieling. Using a grime-laden loofah is counterintuitive, she notes, as it can deposit the germs you’re trying to scrub away right back onto your skin.
Ick factor aside, a dirty loofah can also cause dermatological problems. For instance, a bacteria-laden loofah can lead to infection if it comes into contact with an open cut. Bacteria and dead skin hiding in unsanitary loofahs can also clog pores, which can lead to various blemishes. (Side note: for this reason, you should never use a loofah on your face, regardless of how clean it is.) In the same vein, “scrubbing freshly-shaved legs with a dirty loofah is an invitation for [bacteria-based folliculitis],” Dr. Frieling warns. On a more sinister note, a 1994 study denounced organic loofahs as “reservoirs and vehicles” for “potentially pathogenic bacterial species.” The study identified B Streptococcus, the bacteria responsible for strep throat, as one such species. Grosser yet, the study also determined that dead skin cells stuck in loofah crevices could actually feed these bacteria.
How often should you replace your loofah?
In order to use a loofah in a hygienic manner, you must follow one of two rules: “Either replace [your loofah] weekly, or wash it at the same frequency,” Dr. Frieling says.
Assuming you have time to clean your loofah every week, Dr. Frieling suggests doing so by submerging it in boiling water for two minutes or more. This will kill the bacteria that may have cozied up in your beloved bathtime buddy. Alternatively, scientists in the aforementioned 1994 study suggest soaking your loofah in a diluted solution with 10 percent bleach. Once you’ve banished the bacteria, thoroughly dry the loofah before returning it to its resting place. Repeat once a week, and your loofah can live a long and healthy life in your shower.
One caveat: If your loofah smells mildewy or moldy, it’s past the point of no return. “These smells are indicative of excessive fungi or bacteria growth, which you never want anywhere near your skin,” Dr. Frieling says. In such cases, throw your loofah out immediately.
Are there any alternatives to using a loofah?
If you haven’t the patience or time to boil your loofah every Sunday — or the funds to buy a fresh one every seven days — consider a washcloth. While arguably less sexy, washcloths have fewer deep crevices for bacteria to reside, Dr. Hausauer says. Additionally, “Washcloths [tend to be] washed routinely, so they don’t sit in the shower for weeks or months at a time.”
If all else fails, consider swapping your scrubber for your hands. After all, they are, as Dr. Hausauer calls them, “the good old fashioned way to cleanse the skin.”