I have been seeing a lot of stories such as this one about how staying at home and social isolation has resulted in some people changing their personal hygiene habits, sometimes entirely jettisoning some of them.
Working from home, shielding, not socialising or just losing the will to blow-dry appear to have had many of us questioning whether our pre-pandemic personal hygiene and grooming habits were really necessary. And, with routines disrupted, it is perfectly possible to get to the end of the day before wondering if you have brushed your teeth. Or putting off your morning shower until you have done some lunchtime exercise, and then not bothering to do that either.
Many so-called hygiene practices are really driven by advertising rather than need.
Sales of deodorant are in decline – according to figures from the retail analysts Mintel, 28% of people have been using less. For younger people, this is even more marked – 45% of generation Z and 40% of millennials are dodging deodorant.
Aside from potential health benefits, using less water and energy – as well as fewer products, with their manufacturing impact and use of plastic – is clearly far better for the environment.
“There’s a big industry that is predicated on the idea that soap is good and washing is good, and more is better,” says [James Hamblin, a doctor and the author of Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less], over the phone. “Like anything – water, vitamins or sleep – you can have too much. More is not necessarily better. There’s a point at which it becomes useless, and then a point at which you can have negative effects.” Overwashing, particularly with soap, “depletes the oils that are naturally secreted by your skin”. It can exacerbate conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis. “This is not life-threatening stuff, but it sometimes becomes quite an issue for people, especially those given to atopic dermatitis,” he adds.
There is also a growing understanding that washing – particularly with antibacterial products, of which we have become increasingly fond – can disturb the skin’s microbiome, the population of bacteria that live on us, and this may have negative consequences. Inflammatory and autoimmune diseases are linked to decreased exposure to beneficial microbes.
Hamblin doesn’t like to be prescriptive about how often people should or shouldn’t wash. Showers and baths may be a form of relaxation for people and “culturally, there are big differences in terms of what people feel is expected of them and what they enjoy, so it’s a very personal decision. My hope is that the pandemic allows people a little more individual liberty to experiment and feel less beholden to societal standards and more in touch with what works for them. If that involves doing less, that can be, in most cases, very safely accomplished.”
One factor is undoubtedly the power of habit and routine. For some people like me, the daily ritual is strong enough to withstand external changes in conditions. In my case, as is the case for many people who grew up in the tropics, a daily shower is a necessity. When one came home from school or work, one was usually hot and sweaty and one would take a shower. It did not matter if one was going to meet people or be alone at home, it was done so that one would not feel icky and could better enjoy the cool of the evening. That habit has stayed with me even after I came to the milder climate of the US, except that I now take a shower every morning, with another shower only if I have engaged in some activity during the day that makes me dirty or sweaty. It continued even after I retired. My one concession has been not caused by the pandemic but by retirement in that I now shave only every other day. Other than that, my daily hygiene practices have not changed at all.
It. would be interesting to see how this disaggregates by gender, age, nature of work, and other factors. I am pretty sure that this is being studied, like so many things involving the pandemic.