It is not uncommon to experience a bout of itching after bathing. It may last a short period of time and we often do not give it much thought thereafter. However, for some people itching after a shower or any other bath can persist for hours but then subsides. For others the itching may be due to some underlying disease and is therefore constantly present but may worsen after bathing. Understanding why itching may occur after bathing is important to prevent it and find remedies to ease the itching quickly once it starts up.
Itching and Triggers
Itching is the body’s response to irritants on the skin surface. Studies have found that itching is due to stimulation of a different type of receptor from those that detect temperature, touch and tissue damage (pain). Just like pain an itch is a warning signal at times and may prompt the body to remove the irritant before it does damage. For example, a tiny insect crawling on the skin may feel itchy and scratching may remove the insect from the skin surface even if it is not visible.
However, there are times when itching is triggered by various substances and alterations that are not considered harmful. Often this is the reason that some people experience itching after bathing where there is no skin defect and where no harsh substances were used. The itching may be isolated to certain parts of the body or the itching may be all over the body which is known as generalized pruritus.
If the itch after bathing or a shower is isolated to a certain part of the body then it may help indicate a probable cause. For example, if there is an itchy forehead or scalp after shower then it may be due to the shampoo that was used to wash the hair.
Itching and Water
We may be surprised to find out that water is an irritant on the skin surface. Despite water being so essential for life and around 70% of our body being composed of water, it can be a problem if it remains on the skin for too long. Solutes in the water like salt or chlorine may be more of an irritant but even untainted water that is safe to drink can cause the skin to itch. However, with itching after bathing the trigger is a result of water being on the skin for too long either due to a very long bath or not wiping completely dry after bathing.
Itching and Temperature
The temperature of the bathing water is another factor to consider. Very hot water that may not burn the skin and trigger pain could lead to itching. Hot water causes the surface blood vessels on the skin to dilate (widen) and blood rushes to the area. This can cause abnormal sensations or prematurely activate receptors. Sometimes if there is minor injury to the skin or an allergy then the heat can further exacerbate it and make the symptoms intense. Furthermore hot water can dry the skin excessively.
Itching and Toiletries
Soaps, shampoos and even toothpaste can be some of the irritants thats trigger itching when it comes into contact with the skin. This is known as contact dermatitis. Soap and shampoo are commonly used during bathing. While most of the time it is not an irritant, some types can irritate the skin and even trigger allergic reactions. Similarly toothpaste can be a problem particularly when brushing the teeth while in the shower. The toothpaste may drip on to other parts of the body where it can irritate the skin if not thoroughly removed.
Causes of Itching After Bathing
- Water: Not drying the skin properly after bathing. Steam exposure without properly drying can have a similar effect.
- Heat: Hot water can irritate the skin, dry it excessively and worsen existing inflammation.
- Toiletries: Soaps, shampoos and toothpaste should be removed thoroughly.
- Scrubbing: Vigorous cleaning by scrubbing with a loofah or similar object can injure and irritate the skin.
- Dry skin: Water and soap can dry skin which may only become apparent after bathing.
- Skin diseases: Inflammation on diseased skin may be exacerbated by bathing.
- Hypersensitivity: Heat and vigorous scrubbing can heighten abnormal skin sensitivity an injure the skin.
- Infections: Certain microbes in the water can infect the skin while bathing.
- Take shorter baths with lukewarm to hot water. Avoid very long or very hot baths. Soaking in a bath tub occasionally may not be a problem but frequent soaks that are long could cause itching. A quick shower may be a better option.
- Use mild soaps and shampoos. Baby soaps and shampoos are usually the safer option. Antibacterial soaps should be avoided. Always ensure that the soap or shampoo is thoroughly rinsed off. Shower quickly after soaking in a bath tub with foam bath or soap.
- Scrub gently when bathing. Remember that dead skin cells will slough off on its own throughout the day and do not have to be physically removed. Gentle rubbing can suffice in remove surface dirt. Do not try to exfoliate deeply with very rough and hard surfaces.
- Dry the skin thoroughly after bathing. Apart from wiping with a dry towel, also try to air dry the body for a short period before wearing clothes. If uncertain about skin folds like in the groin region, use an electric hair dryer on a low heat setting to air dry the area.
- Moisturize dry skin after bathing. First ensure that the skin is thoroughly dried before applying a moisturizer. Always use non-scented (fragrance free) moisturizers with minimal additives for sensitive skin.
- Use an emollient on damaged or diseased skin before bathing. This will help preserve any remaining moisture on the affected area. Avoid moisturizing or washing open wounds unless advised by a doctor.
Remedies for Itching After Bathing
It is better to prevent itching with the tips mentioned above than trying to remedy it after bathing. However, if itching is persisting after bathing then a few simple measures may help relieve it.
- Have a quick shower in cool room-temperature water. Rub the body with your hand. Do not use a loofah or other rough object to scrub the skin. Dry thoroughly after a cool bath.
- Air dry for longer. If an electric fan or air conditioning is available then try to cool down before putting on clothes. This should be avoided in cold environments as the body can lose heat rapidly after a hot bath.
- Apply a thick emollient like petroleum jelly over the affected area. Avoid water-based moisturizers altogether until the itching subsides. Urea creams or calamine lotion may also be helpful in small areas where the itching is occurring.
- Sit in a cool room if the itching does not resolve. Use an air conditioner if available to lower the room temperature around the 25ºC (77ºF) mark. However, this should not be done for babies who are unclothed as it can lead to rapid heat loss and thereby drop the body temperature.
Antihistamines and other medication should only be used if the itching persists, is severe and not resolving with other conservative measures. It is always advisable to seek medical advice in these cases.
Reviewed and updated on 11 August 2018.