Of all the rooms in my house, my favorite is the bathroom. Bedrooms and kitchens have their charms, sure, but neither approaches the bathroom’s blend of solitude and comfort. The bathroom is where magazines are read and ideas are generated; where a modicum of privacy and a moment of respite is possible. A good bathroom break is like a small-scale spa visit—a few minutes of self-care that can make the rest of the day a little more bearable.
For month two of my self-bettering experiment, I’m going to overhaul my bathroom—testing products, speaking to experts, and adopting the latest methods to make the most of my morning ablutions. What kind of toothbrush should I be using? How should I shower? Which brand of toilet paper is best? My goal is to make my bathroom as comfortable as possible—a luxurious Shangri-La retreat that will leave me coddled and rejuvenated.
My quest starts with the centerpiece of any bathroom: the toilet.
In his 1966 book The Bathroom, which is still considered the bible of bathroomology, Cornell professor Alexander Kira called the modern, sit-down toilet “the most ill-suited fixture ever designed.” Kira believed—and subsequent studies have confirmed—that toilets work against our bodies by forcing us into unnatural angles when we sit down to defecate.
The solution to hunched-over posture, Kira wrote, is squatting—a more natural position that opens the anal sphincter, moves the body’s plumbing into proper alignment, and allows us to evacuate more freely. A 2003 study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that squatters took an average of 51 seconds to move their bowels, as opposed to 130 seconds for those sitting on a standard high toilet. A more recent study by a group of Japanese researchers found that “the greater the hip flexion achieved by squatting, the straighter the rectoanal canal will be, and accordingly, less strain will be required for defecation.” Our caveman ancestors, in other words, had it right.
I’m a renter, so I can’t exactly tear my toilet out of the wall and replace it with a hole in the ground. But I did figure out one way to replicate the pre-plumbing experience. I ordered the Squatty Potty, a nine-inch-tall stool ($24.99 on Amazon) that sits on the ground in front of your toilet.
“It’s all about basic mechanics,” Robert Edwards, the CEO of Squatty Potty, told me. “It’s about taking it back to the way it was done thousands of years ago.”
There are two ways to use the Squatty Potty, Edwards said. The easy (and recommended) way is to put your feet up on it while sitting down on the toilet, which raises your legs and simulates a shallow squat. The even more effective, harder way is to stand on the Squatty Potty and lower yourself into a deep squat, either hovering over or barely touching the seat while you do your business.
I experimented with both methods for several days, and I found the hard-core one more satisfying. It makes going to the bathroom easier, and it saves time. I used to dawdle on the toilet, finishing long New Yorker articles and completing tough Candy Crush levels. But with the Squatty Potty, that’s impossible. After 30 seconds of deep squatting, your quads start to burn, so you learn to finish your business, wipe, and move on.
After testing the Squatty Potty for a week, I decided to venture to the other end of the comfort-efficiency spectrum. I e-mailed Brondell, a company that makes high-end toilet seats, and asked for a review model of their top-of-the-line model, the Swash 1000. The Swash 1000 ($599, Brondell.com) is a marvel of modern engineering. It has two bidet attachments (one in back, one in front for “feminine” washing), a heated seat, an electric air dryer, and options for sanitizing and deodorizing your toilet bowl. I installed it on my toilet in about 10 minutes.
Bidets haven’t caught on in the U.S., but there’s a reason they’re standard in most European countries: They’re cleaner and more civilized than wiping with paper alone. (Alexander Kira, the late bathroom expert, agreed: “Many are prepared to complain about a tomato sauce stain on a restaurant tablecloth,” he wrote, “whilst they luxuriate on a plush seat in their faecially stained pants.”) The first squirt of the Swash 1000’s bidet attachment shocked me—I jumped off the seat in surprise. But the second and third were less abnormal. And by the fourth, I was hooked. The Swash 1000 isn’t the most luxurious toilet fixture on the market—that would probably be the $6,000-plus Kohler Numi toilet—but it is one of the best things I can put in my bathroom without violating my lease. (A warning about the Swash 1000, though: It makes sitting on the toilet so pleasant that you’ll end up staying for much longer than normal. Adjust your social calendar accordingly.)
While enjoying my bidet seat, I experimented with several types of toilet paper. Consumer Reports’s favorite brand, White Cloud 3-Ply Ultra Soft and Thick, is good—thick, soft, not too expensive —but I preferred Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, which felt like a soft chamois cloth. I also tried several other toilet accessories, such as Cottonelle wet wipes and something called the Bottom Buddy ($36.20 on Amazon), a plastic stick with a grabbing mechanism on the end that holds a wad of toilet paper and makes it possible to wipe with minimal effort. (It’s meant for people with physical impairments but also works for the truly lazy.) But neither struck me as necessary, especially now that I’ve got the Swash 1000.
The most far-out solution I tried was based on a 2005 study by Korean researchers that found that people who received an abdomen massage using essential oils had an easier time overcoming constipation. To test this finding myself, I ordered some vials of lemon, peppermint, and rosemary oils and tried rubbing my belly with them before I went to the bathroom. I’m not sure whether it helped, but it did make me smell like a Yankee Candle store for the rest of the day.
We’ve all heard the tooth-care orthodoxy from our dentists: Brush twice a day for at least two minutes, floss regularly, and use a pea-size amount of toothpaste. But when I dug into the science of dental hygiene, what I found was a hodgepodge of mixed findings and conflicting advice.
For example, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Dentistry found that sonic toothbrushes were better at removing plaque and preventing gingivitis than regular, manual toothbrushes. But a 2013 study found that oscillating, rotating toothbrushes—brushes with heads that spin in a circular pattern, rather than simply vibrating back and forth—had the edge. Meanwhile, a 2011 study in the International Dental Journal found that electric toothbrushes weren’t significantly more effective than a manual brush. And a recent paper in the British Dental Journal found that, basically, nobody in the dental community agrees on anything: “There was unacceptably very wide diversity in recommendations on toothbrushing techniques and on how often people should brush their teeth and for how long,” the authors wrote.
Since no scientific consensus exists, I had to go by personal preference. I tested three brushes—a sonic brush (Philips Sonicare HX5610/30 Essence 5600, $39.95 on Amazon), a rotating-oscillating brush (the Arm & Hammer Spinbrush, $7.99 at Target), and, last, my regular Oral-B manual brush ($9.99 for four at CVS). Of the three, I found that the Sonicare left my mouth feeling the cleanest. I’m not sure, in a periodontal sense, whether it did a better job than either of the others. But I liked the brush’s small head and wireless charging cradle, and the fact that it has a timer that vibrates when you’ve brushed for two minutes.
Toothpaste, too, is a toss-up. I tried three brands: Colgate Total Enamel Strength (the top-rated pick of Real Simple magazine), Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Whitening (the one I normally use), and a fancy, all-natural toothpaste from Tom’s of Maine. Neither worked definitively better than the others, I don’t think, but I liked the Colgate best, in part because it had the strongest mint flavor. (The fact that I associate a minty taste with quality means that Big Toothpaste’s marketing team has done its job.) The Tom’s toothpaste had a more natural, mild mint taste. But, weirdly, natural mildness wasn’t what I wanted—I’ve been conditioned to expect a strong artificial mint aftertaste in the mornings, even if it does make my first cup of coffee taste bad.
I also tried the toothbrushing method recommended by my friend A.J. Jacobs in his book Drop Dead Healthy. It’s called the Modified Bass, and it involves angling the brush at 45 degrees toward your gum line, scrubbing a few times, and then rolling the brush across the surface of your teeth. And, in a less crucial improvement, I sprang for the Touch N Brush Hands Free Toothpaste Dispenser ($12.35 on Amazon), which mounts on your bathroom mirror and squeezes out the right amount of paste when you push your brush into a small divot on the dispenser. It didn’t save me much time, but it did create the kind of neat toothpaste ribbons you usually see only in commercials.
Unlike the men in Gillette ads, I’ve never really cared whether my morning shave leaves me baby-faced or not, as long as it gets rid of visible stubble and doesn’t result in too much razor burn. But this month, mediocrity wouldn’t cut it. I decided to try four different methods: one with an electric razor, one with a standard cartridge, one with a safety razor, and one with a straight razor—the kind you find in old-time barbershops, handled by old men with gravitas and steady hands.
Electric razors are by far the most convenient of the bunch; with mine, I can erase a week’s worth of hair growth in just a few minutes. But it leaves behind a light stubble. So, when I really need to get clean, I usually shave using a disposable cartridge razor—specifically, the Dorco SXA5000. (Pro tip: Dorco razors are the same ones used by the Dollar Shave Club, and if you buy them in bulk, they’re a lot cheaper. At $34.42 for a pack of 24 replacement cartridges, they’re also roughly a third of the price of the name-brand Gillette Fusion cartridges, with no discernible difference in quality.)
Cartridge shaving is fine for most people, but purists swear by the traditional “wet shave,” which is accomplished with a straight razor or safety razor. (Wetshaving.net, a forum for dedicated wet-shavers, asks potential converts to ask themselves, “Are you the kind of man that rakes a dull hatchet across his face in front of a half-steamed mirror, grunts, and goes about his day, tying his shoes at red lights and grabbing breakfast at McDonald’s on the way to work? Or are you the kind of man who has it together when he leaves the house, with that ready-for-anything attitude?”)
I want to be the second kind of man. So I procured a bar of shaving soap, a badger-hair brush, and two razors: a Merkur safety razor ($31.49 on Amazon) and a Parker stainless steel straight razor ($19.99 on Amazon), which looks like the kind of implement you’d find in Sweeney Todd.
I put the soap in a coffee mug, added warm water, and began lathering my face with the brush. I decided to shave one half of my face with each razor. I started with the safety razor, which felt like a duller, less ergonomic version of the Dorco cartridges I’d been using—not a huge improvement. The straight razor, on the other hand, was a frankly terrifying hair-destroyer. After inserting a blade into the handle, I gingerly dragged it over the unshaven side of my face, barely touching the hair as my mind reeled with disaster scenarios. What if I shaved too close and took off a layer of skin? What if my hand slipped, and I cut myself and bled out on my bathroom floor?
The straight razor gives a close shave—closer than the safety razor, even—but it took me half an hour to shave half of my face, and the procedure made me so frazzled that I had to lie down afterward. If this is what real shaving is like, I think I’m willing to tolerate some stubble.
Design-wise, my shower is a mess. For starters, it’s narrow and low-ceilinged, so I have to crane my neck to wash my hair. Like most baths, it’s a tub/shower hybrid, which makes no sense given that I almost never take a traditional bath. Several of the experts I spoke to recommended ripping out the tub completely, and replacing it with a standalone shower.
“The vast majority of adults prefer a large, luxurious multi-head shower enclosure and not a big soaking tub,” Ellen Cheever, an interior designer who specializes in kitchens and bathrooms, told me.
But, since I rent, I can’t make any major alterations to my shower, so I had to make do with minor tweaks. Diana Schrage, a senior staff interior designer at Kohler, recommended that I make my shower more exciting by adding devices that make it more fun.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about how many senses we want engaged,” Schrage said. “Usually, I start with light.”
Most people’s showers are too dark to be fully safe, Schrage says, so on her recommendation, I put a small tap light in my shower. I don’t have a grab bar for my shower, as Schrage recommended, but I do have a towel rack within reach of the tub, and I began using it to steady myself as I entered and exited the bath. Next, I attached a Bluetooth speaker (the Ivation IVA-400, recommended by tech review site Tom’s Guide, $29.99 on Amazon) to my showerhead, which allowed me to listen to music while I scrubbed myself. (The speaker also has a speakerphone feature, should I ever need to bathe while on a conference call with my boss.)
Playing music livened up the shower experience, but it still felt like I could be more stimulated. So I downloaded The Social Radio, an app that reads your Twitter timeline to you out loud. This way, I could improve my efficiency by reading the news while I showered, batching two important tasks into one.
“Wall Street Journal: Family Dollar rejects increased takeover bid from Dollar General,” the app read as I soaped my armpits.
Cheever, the bathroom designer, warned me against tweeting from the shower, for fear that I’d get distracted and hurt myself. (“Music, I applaud,” she said. “But anything that has to do with reading, reacting, responding, I would strongly suggest is not a good idea.”) So, after a few days with The Social Radio, I went back to using the Bluetooth speaker. Showering with a musical soundtrack is more fun than listening to tweets, and playing music allowed me to give myself a time limit. (Right now, my morning shower is two “Turn Down for What”s long.)
I also experimented with different things to put in my hair. For shampoos, I tried Woody’s Daily Shampoo and Clear Men Scalp Therapy ($19.96 and $4.49 on Amazon, respectively), both of which came recommended by shampoo-review site GetGoodHead.com, as well as American Crew, the shampoo I normally use. Of the three, Woody’s was the winner. It smelled great—a little citrusy, with a hint of grapefruit—and it made my hair feel better and thicker than normal. I also tried three conditioners: Jack Black True Volume conditioner ($19), American Crew Tea Tree Calming Conditioner ($11.35), and Redken Finish Up Conditioner ($13.50). All three smelled good and made my hair soft, but American Crew came out slightly ahead thanks to its less aggressive scent and cheaper price.
Experts generally recommend bar soap over liquid body washes, since we tend to use too much of the liquid kind, and since plastic body wash bottles are less eco-friendly than the cardboard or paper wrappers on bar soap. (One study found that liquid soaps had, on average, a 25 percent larger carbon footprint than bar soaps.) So I switched from my normal Irish Spring body wash to a Dove Men +Care Body & Face Bar ($4.49 for four). I hadn’t washed with bar soap in years, but after a few days of adjustment, I found it worked just as well as the body wash. And I take pleasure in knowing that I was making up in a small way for the environmental havoc I was wreaking with my longer, music-accompanied showers.
These changes made a huge difference to my shower routine. With music, added light, and improved toiletries, I found I actually looked forward to showering every day. But that, too, is an area of debate. Some experts advise showering only two or three times a week, so as not to wash away the natural oils on your skin and in your hair.
In the interest of testing the full range of options, I tried going without showers for a week—at Burning Man, it turns out, where my editor sent me for a story. There, in the desert, my $600 bidet seat was replaced with reeking Port-a-Potties, and I heard dubstep bass lines from the camp next door instead of a pleasant Bluetooth soundtrack. Going to the bathroom in such austere conditions was a terrible shock to my system, and I confess: My weeks of bathroom optimization may have spoiled the great outdoors for me. The minute I returned home, I put down my bags, rushed to the bathroom, closed the door, and stayed there for 45 minutes, treating myself the best I know how.
Next month: Kevin Roose tries to optimize his office. Read more of his self-bettering experiments.