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Is Your Shower Head Making You Sick? Find Out Why Doctors Say You Should Clean It Regularly

Plus, the 4 effortless steps to getting it clean in no time

There’s nothing better than a hot shower. Sure bubble baths are relaxing, but when you want to feel squeaky clean, a shower can’t be beat. The only problem? A bathroom shower head can get dirty and clogged over time, and without regular TLC, it can stop working and get pretty gross — think about what could be coming down on your head — and possibly make you ill. The good news is that learning how to clean a shower head isn’t difficult, and cleaning it can be done fairly quickly. If your shower head isn’t performing like it used to or you’re simply wondering the most efficient way to give it a good scrub, keep reading.

How do shower heads get dirty?

Over time, shower faucets can develop limescale and calcium deposits — especially if you live in an area with hard water. And the mineral buildups can create a blockage at the end of the shower nozzle, making it difficult for water to pass through, which results in low shower water pressure or water spraying in odd directions. And can eventually lead to corrosion in the shower head. Even more important, though, because bacteria thrive in warm, humid environments, they cling to those mineral deposits and get sprayed out when you shower.

Why do shower heads need cleaning?

Most of us don’t think about where our running water comes from or why there’s a difference between strong and weak water pressure — until we encounter a dirty shower head. But weak water pressure, as frustrating as it can be, may be the least of your concerns when dealing with a clogged shower head.

“We’ve found through studies that shower heads are a prime environment for the development of biofilms, which can harbor potential pathogens,” says Denver dermatologist Dr. Scott Walter, whose video on cleaning shower heads went viral on Tiktok.

“When shower heads aren’t cleaned regularly biofilms can develop. When that happens these pathogens can become aerosolized when someone showers and can lead to health issues — especially in those more prone to them.” This includes those with immunosuppression or underlying lung disease, he says.

And according to a recent study conducted by Manchester University, the hot water that sprays from shower heads can harbor more bacteria than you’d find on the average toilet. And additional research has shown that slime buildup in shower heads contains microbes linked to a range of illnesses, from Legionnaires’ and Crohn’s disease to septicemia and skin, hair, ear and eye issues.

But that’s not all! In another study performed by the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers discovered that an alarming 30% of shower heads showed significant levels of Mycobacterium Avium, a pathogen linked to pulmonary disease. Scientists also found that the harmful bacteria Stenotrophomonas Maltophilia thrives around the blank gunk that gathers around shower heads. And turning your shower on disperses these itty-bitty microbes into the air, making them more easily inhaled. (Click through to learn more ways to keep your bathroom clean and block the spread of germs like norovirus.)

In addition, a dirty shower head can cause dandruff and infections on the scalp. If you’re experiencing itchiness and flakes on the top of your head, consider giving your shower head a good scrub.

Signs of a dirty shower head

The telltale signs of a dirty shower head include some or all of the following:

  • Visible black mold surrounding the shower head
  • Very weak water pressure or nonexistent water flow
  • The presence of chalky white or yellow-ish calcium deposits
  • “Pink mold” and slime

How often do shower heads need to be cleaned?

Wipe down your shower head once a week or so to keep it looking clean, but do a deeper cleaning at least once every other month to eliminate mineral deposits and limescale, says Muffetta Krueger, owner of Muffetta Housekeeping, a cleaning and staffing service in Westchester County, NY. “Both of these can reduce water flow and water pressure, and can serve as a breeding ground for health-threatening bacteria, fungi and mold.”

Pro tip: Live in an area with hard water? Deep clean your shower head monthly instead of bi-monthly.

4 steps to cleaning your shower head

hand cleaning a shower head nozzle

Step 1: Scrub the nozzles

Many shower heads have flexible rubber nozzles, which get gunked up with mineral buildup over time. Apply one of the DIY scrubbing solutions below and scrub with a soft-bristled brush or toothbrush to dislodge the buildup and get rid of the crud.

1. Dish soap or castile soap and water

A light buildup of mineral deposits can be scrubbed away with a bit of castile or dish soap and water, says Becky Rapinchuk, a natural home cleaning and housekeeping expert who posts on social media as Clean Mama.

2. Baking soda and dish or castile soap

Combine about two tablespoons of baking soda with a few drops of soap and mix to form a paste. Then apply to the shower head nozzle, and scrub with your brush. “Use this if it needs a little extra cleaning oomph,” says Rapinchuk. While the dish or castile soap will help break down the mineral deposits, the abrasive nature of the baking soda will help scrub it away.

Related: 7 Genius Baking Soda Hacks Guaranteed to Save You Time and Money

3. Citric acid and diatomaceous earth

Most people don’t realize that diatomaceous earth mixed with citric acid makes a great scrubbing paste, says Krueger. Diatomaceous earth is made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms, and these fossilized remains have sharp edges, so the earth can be used as an abrasive cleaner. Combine a few tablespoons of the earth mixed with enough citric acid to form a paste, and use it to scrub away any mineral deposits. The acidity in the citric acid will break down the deposits, and the abrasiveness of the earth will move them out of the nozzle holds. Don’t have citric acid? Fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice will also work.

4. Steel wool

“Depending on the type of shower head, you may also want to consider using a softer grade steel wool, such as 0 grade,” advises Krueger. It provides added scrubbing power without causing damage to the surface.

5. Toothpaste

“For targeted cleaning, especially around the nozzles, using a toothbrush with a bit of toothpaste can work wonders,” says Jennifer Rodriguez, chief hygiene officer for Pro Housekeepers. “The mild abrasive in toothpaste helps scrub away buildup without damaging the shower head.” But remember to rinse thoroughly after scrubbing, she says.

Pro tip: Get your shower nice and steamy before beginning to clean, advises Krueger. “The steam helps loosen the dirt, grime and minerals and makes it easier to clean.”

Step 2: Soak the shower head

A deep soak helps loosen and remove gunk — and you don’t need to remove the shower head to do it. Keep reading for two options.

1. White vinegar

One of the easiest ways to deep clean your shower head is by submerging it in distilled white vinegar, says Rapinchuk. “Pour white vinegar in a zip top bag and use a rubber band to secure the bag to the shower head,” she says. Let sit for 15-30 minutes. Then remove the bag, and rinse with warm water and give the shower head another quick swipe with your cleaning brush. Don’t have any white vinegar? Apple cider vinegar or lemon juice will work as an effective substitute, dissolving soap scum and tackling mildew.

Related: 20 Brilliant Uses for Vinegar and Dish Soap —Clean the Entire House for Under $8!

See the vinegar and plastic bag method in action here, used by social media cleaning sensation Thomas Hernandez .

2. Denture cleaning tablets

Denture cleaning tablets are meant for both whitening and cleaning dentures, and they have some of the same ingredients as some cleaning products. Simply drop two tablets into two cups of warm water, and use the same plastic bag method noted above to soak the shower head for a few hours — or even overnight. “They work to remove stains and buildup,” says Krueger.

See Brandon Pleshek of Clean That Up use them here on stainless steel water bottles:

Pro tip: For a lot of mineral buildup, try CLR Calcium Lime Rust Remover, found in the cleaning sections of most big box stores. Note: The shower head can also be removed and soaked in either of these solutions.

Step 3: Clean the filter screen

how to clean a shower head: Removing old rusted shower head in bathroom.

Is your shower head still sputtering after the above steps? “Chances are a dirty filter screen is to blame,” says Krueger. You may need to take a look at the shower head instruction manual for details on how to remove the filter, so you can give it a cleaning as well. Don’t panic if you can’t find your manual — it can usually be found on the manufacturer’s website or by contacting the company’s customer service department.

Generally speaking, the filter screen in located in the part of the shower head that connects to the water pipe, so you’ll need to remove the shower head. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Remove the shower head with a wrench or lockable pliers.
  • Clear any loose debris by flushing the interior with water. 
  • Grab a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the filter screen before giving it a good rinse.
  • If the filter screen has mineral buildup or feels slimy, place it in a container with vinegar to soak. (This is a good time to clean the rest of the shower head, as well.) 
  • Reinstall the filter screen and reattach the shower head. 
  • Once everything is reassembled, allow the water to run at full pressure for several minutes to flush out any remaining debris. 

Do reference your shower head’s instruction manual before taking it apart to clean the filter. If done incorrectly, you can cause permanent damage. There are many different types of shower heads out there, and these steps are meant only as guidance.  

Step 4: Perform weekly maintenance

Want to spot clean your shower head in between deep cleanings? Krueger has a suggestion: “I recommend using a magic eraser to remove the buildup on the shower head. I keep one in my shower and use it with dish soap weekly for maintenance.”

For more shower cleaning hacks, click through the links below!

Is Pink Mold in the Shower Dangerous? Mold Experts Weigh In + How To Clean It With Ease

The Surprise Pairing That Removes Even the Toughest Hard Water Stains From Glass

Experts Caution Against Using Baking Soda and Bleach for Mold — The $2 Toilet Bowl Cleaner To Use Instead

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