The pandemic and hygiene habits

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.


  1. Sam N says

    When I was a graduate student in San Diego, I would sometimes go days without a soap shower, just rinsing off after surfing in the morning with the beach showers. I’d put on some deodorant. No one ever complained I smelled badly (although maybe they were just being polite), and I occasionally got comments on how healthy my hair looked. It did smell a touch like the ocean, which I enjoyed.

    One guy did mention some bad odor, years later, when I was not surfing and I was briefly homeless, living out of my office, and showers became a bit more irregular. That improved once I had typical housing again.

  2. anat says

    Morning showers? Showering is for night-time! I need to feel clean to fall asleep properly (or some approximation thereof). The only times I showered in the mornings were during my military service, when I had a dorm that was stuffy and hot during the summer -- I’d shower after dinner before changing into civilian clothes and in the morning.

    Maybe a year or so before the pandemic I switched to aluminum-free scent-free deodorant. Then during the pandemic I dropped it entirely. In about 3 weeks my place of employment opens to all of us who are fully vaccinated (I was among those who were permitted to work on site as required all along and was able to get vaccinated early on). I wonder if that would make me self-conscious enough to resume deodorant use.

  3. Sam N says

    @2, yes, I certainly never use an aluminum antiperspirant, why would I want to plug up those pores?

    I’d recommend use of a deodorant though. Not everyone likes the scent of those propriano bacteria, that if I recall correctly, enjoy hanging out in our armpits. (If I remember this correctly, awesome, 20+ years since I took microbiology).

  4. Jazzlet says

    I have to be careful about washing, I only use soap on my armpits because they have had dedorant on, otherwise it’s plain water or the cream I am prescibed for both moisturising and washing. Soap really really isn’t good for my eczema, but with the minmal soap routine the eczema is also minimal. I don’t use shampoo either for the same reason, just conditioner.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    One of the culture shocks I had moving to Canada as a teen in 1968 was the (what looked to me like) obsession with deodorants. God forbid you smell like a human being!

    Sam N @3:

    Not everyone likes the scent of those propriano bacteria

    I think that’s an outcome of successful marketing by purveyors of deodorants.

  6. Sam N says

    @5, if it was, I’m fairly sure my micro professor purveyed it. I remember him also noting that bacteria’s byproducts are responsible for the scent of swiss cheese. Memories are unreliable. I’m not sure why I’d invent such specific ideas though (a specific bacteria…)

    I tend to not mind the smell, but I may be something of a hippie.

  7. Sam N says

    Propionic acid is a side product, and according to wikipedia: ‘and their activity is partially responsible for the odor of Emmental cheese, American “Swiss cheese” and sweat. ‘

  8. Mano Singham says

    I think that how much people’s habits change will depend on how time-consuming and extensive their former work-expected practices were and how much they like to maintain the same routine.

    My working day morning routine of a brushing, shave, and shower was fairly quick and I have always dressed casually without much effort put into clothes selection so keeping pretty much to that same routine even after I retired and with the pandemic has been easy. Shaving was the most time-consuming and irksome part of the morning routine which is why I have relaxed that to just every other day.

  9. kestrel says

    I raise poultry and as a result have to constantly wash my hands. Chickens naturally have salmonella in and on them, so whenever handling chicks or adults, wash your hands. My poor hands are pretty much always cracked and dry. Constant washing is definitely not good for your skin. This did not change a lot for me during the pandemic, it just got a little bit worse -- there is a huge demand for chicks all of a sudden so I raised more this year than I ever have before. This sounds like a good trend to me, to worry less about things like deodorant.

  10. steve oberski says

    My rule of thumb is, if I can smell myself then it’s getting pretty bad.

    Shaving is weekly now, or until I start abrading my or my significant others skin.

    Gingivitis/Pyorrhea seem to run in the family so I’m an obsessive tooth brusher, flosser, water piker, having observed several relatives with nary a cavity lose all their teeth to gum disease.

  11. bmiller says

    Except for formal public hearings, my workplace was always somewhat casual. As in jeans and a polo shirt. Except for formal public meetings, of course. With those moving to Zoom, I don’t even have to wear my jacket and tie for the public meetings.

    Don’t really want to smell like a human, tbh. I am brainwashed. I read somewhere that the main reason we were never a preferred prey animal is because we smell and taste so bad!

    I have slightly upped my shower routine during the last month, but only because it is pollen season and I NEED to get the pollen off my skin and eyes after one of my bicycle rides. Of course, as Mano can attest we are in a serious drought, so that will be discouraged in the future.

  12. anat says

    Oral hygiene has so many health effects. Very important in the long term, both for cardiovascular health and brain health. Great return on investment for a few minutes of flossing and brushing. A small thing I learned: wait at least 30 minutes between eating and brushing your teeth, to avoid damaging the enamel by acids from recently-consumed food. Now that I practice intermittent fasting I only eat between noon and 7, maybe 8 in the evening anyway, so that’s not an issue for me.

    (And now that I looked this up, there is also mention of not drinking water within 30 minutes after brushing…)

  13. says

    Clothing has been affected as much by COVID-19 as personal habits. I won’t link to any articles since many of them are fluff, but many writers talked about 2020 as the year of leggings, and not just because Kamala Harris wore them. Women didn’t have to the go to the office anymore, so many chose comfort and functionality over appearance and dressing to impress. It’s likely to be a permanent trend.

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