Personal hygiene is all about looking after your body to keep it clean and healthy.
Good personal hygiene protects your body from a build-up of dirt and microorganisms that could harm your health. It also helps prevent microorganisms from your body spreading to others. Having a body that feels clean and healthy can also improve your emotional wellbeing and social confidence.
Personal hygiene means looking after your hair, skin, nails and teeth, washing your hands, washing your clothes, and practising sexual hygiene. There are also areas of hygiene that relate specifically to women or men, as well as good hygiene habits that everyone can practise. Personal care and laundry products help make all these tasks easy.
EU consumers on the importance of personal hygiene[i]
Good personal hygiene is important / very important in improving my quality of life
Good personal hygiene is important / very important in building up self-esteem
Personal care and cosmetic products are important / very important in building up self esteem
Personal care and cosmetic products are important / very important in improving my quality of life
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
COVID-19 – hygiene advice
Australian health authorities and the World Health Organisation recommend frequent hand hygiene with an alcohol-based hand rub* or soap and water to help prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19.
You may also need to moisturise your hands more: your skin can dry out with frequent cleansing and could become chapped and broken. Which, as well as being sore and uncomfortable, might also make you less inclined to wash your hands!
Good cough/sneeze etiquette is also recommended.
*Supervise young children when using alcohol-based hand rubs. Make sure the product completely dries on their hands―don’t let them lick any wet product! Store the bottle safely out of reach, taking the appropriate care that you would for any other household product. For advice on possible poisoning, please contact the 24-hour Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.
Hand hygiene – Why?
Microorganisms from your hands can be transferred to:
- Other parts of your body, e.g. via the ‘faecal-oral’ route
- Other people
- Objects (‘fomites’), from where they can transfer to other people. Microorganisms can stay viable on fomites for days depending on the type of organism, the type of surface and other environmental conditions. Some items such as doorhandles, elevator buttons, gym equipment and money are touched many times a day by different people, greatly increasing the risk of spreading pathogens.
In recognition of the importance of hand washing, Global Handwashing Day is held annually on 15 October. This worldwide initiative focuses on raising awareness of the benefits of handwashing with soap and to encourage this culture around the world.
It is important to wash your hands:
- contact with someone who is vulnerable to illness
- taking oral medicines
- handling contact lenses
Before & after…
- eating or handling food
- touching a wound
- inserting tampons or suppositories
- coughing, sneezing & blowing your nose
- handling garbage or touching the bin
- touching animals
- changing a nappy
- using the toilet or bathroom
- handling money
- coughing, sneezing & blowing your nose
- anything else that makes your hands dirty!
Hand hygiene – How?
Rubbing your hands together with soap and warm water dislodges and breaks down the grease and dirt that carry most germs.
Rub your hands together for 15-20 seconds. Not just the palms – don’t forget the backs of the hands, fingers, nails, tips and webbing between fingers. After lathering, rinse and dry your hands thoroughly, because wet hands help spread bacteria from surfaces that you touch to your hands.
A package of handwashing materials including a video and posters is available from The Food Safety Information Council.
Do you use your mobile phone on the toilet?
A 2016 survey found that 41% of Australians use their mobile phone on the toilet. [iv]
Soaps are available as bars, gels, liquids and foams, and with different fragrances or fragrance-free. Soaps can also be anti-bacterial or have added moisturisers. Other types of hand cleansers are handwipes and alcohol-based hand rubs, which can be a convenient option ‘on the go’ as they do not need water.
It is also important to keep your skin healthy as dry, cracked hands are more vulnerable to infection. This kind of skin damage occurs more frequently in cold, dry winter weather, and when you wash your hands frequently. Read more at About you > Skin.
Looking after your nails is also important. Whether you prefer to have long or short nails, dirt and bacteria can lodge underneath and be passed on to others through direct contact or via other surfaces. Regular cleaning and nail trimming will help keep your nails hygienic and looking good.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Hair hygiene – Why?
No one wants to have a ‘bad hair day’.
Hair has strong links to self-image, personal expression and emotional wellbeing. This applies most to head hair, which we can choose to cut, style and colour (or not). But it also applies to body hair, the location and thickness of which we can modify by techniques such as shaving, waxing and depilation.
Hair performs various important functions:
- Helping protect the body from physical trauma, insect bites and solar radiation
- Helping to regulate body temperature
- Detecting stimuli above the skin surface
Hair grows from hair follicles in the skin, which also produce an oily lubricant called sebum. Head hair can be classified as dry, normal or oily, depending on the amount of sebum produced. With low levels of sebum hair can look dull and coarse; at normal levels sebum keeps hair soft and shiny; at increased levels it can accumulate on the scalp causing hair to clump, attracting dirt and odour and making your head itchy.
Hair hygiene – How?
Shampoos are available to wash all hair types. Hair changes depending on age, activity level, and (for women) throughout the menstrual cycle or during pregnancy, so the best guide is simply to shampoo often enough to keep your hair feeling clean. There are also specific shampoos for coloured hair, treated & damaged hair, delicate baby hair, and to treat dandruff.
Conditioners are used after shampooing to help counteract drying caused by the elements and by styling, keeping hair shiny and smooth. As they perform a similar function to sebum, conditioners are most important if you have dry or styled hair. Conditioners are also available for all hair types.
Brushing and combing can also help you to manage oiliness by distributing sebum through the hair, helping keep hair shiny, smooth and tangle-free.
Many people choose to remove body hair from various parts of the body. There are many products available to assist with at-home hair removal: disposable razors, shaving creams, wax strips, warm wax and depilatory creams.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Skin hygiene – Why?
In 1846, English surgeon John Coventry published a paper in the prestigious Lancet Journal, to ‘excite attention to a most important but neglected section of hygiene – ablution, and to elucidate the various evils of dirtiness as deduced from the structure and function of the skin.’[vi]
In other words, the importance of washing and having clean skin.
The skin is the largest organ of the human body. It has several layers including an outer layer of dead skin cells, an inner layer with blood vessels, nerves, hair follicles and glands, and a deeper fatty layer.
Skin plays a vital role in:
- Temperature regulation – pores in the skin open and close to regulate movement of gases and sweat across the skin
- Insulation – the fatty skin layer helps insulate the body
- Sense of touch – skin receptors send messages to our brain in response to stimuli
- Protection – providing a barrier to foreign substances and physical protection for delicate internal organs
- Production of vitamin D – one of the essential vitamins
When you remove dirt, oil, bacteria and dead skin cells from the skin surface, skin can perform all these functions more easily. Special attention is needed for areas where dirt, bodily secretions and moisture can accumulate: behind the ears, in the belly button, under the arms, in the genital area and between the toes. These can become breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi.
Skin hygiene – How?
Bathing and showering with quality personal care products removes build-up of dirt, oil, bacteria and dead skin cells on the skin surface.
There are many varieties of cleansers. Soaps come as bars, gels, liquids and foams and can also be anti-bacterial, have added moisturiser, a range of fragrances or be fragrance-free. There are also soap-free body cleansers and specialised facial cleansers. When cleaning the skin “on the go”, body and face wipes can be a convenient option.
After washing, moisturising lotions and creams can help maintain the integrity of the skin surface by keeping it supple and smooth. Many different options are available: different fragrances or fragrance-free, for sensitive skin, medicated and antibacterial. These products help maintain your skin’s heath and leave it feeling soft and smooth.
Regular exfoliation can also help remove dirt and dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, helping to keep pores open.
A small percentage of people can experience sensitivity to some ingredients in personal care products. If you want to check your skin’s response to a new product, do a ‘patch test’: place a small amount of product on the inside of your wrist or arm and watch for any redness or irritation over the next 24 hours. This applies not only to products designed specifically to care for the skin, but also to other personal care and cosmetic products that contact the skin.
Some skincare products have sun protection properties. If you will be spending time outside, consider the regular use of sunscreen products regardless of your skin type. Sunscreens work by filtering or blocking ultraviolet radiation (UV) and are available in many varieties which include:
- A range of sun protection factors (SPFs)
- Broad spectrum, which acts against the effects of both long and short UV wavelengths: UVA that penetrates deep into the skin causing unseen damage, and UVB that affects the skin surface and is visible as burning
- Water resistant, good for use at the beach or pool
- Different consistencies such as creams, lotions, milks, gels and sprays. These can be a matter of personal preference; however, it may be easier to apply gels or sprays to hairier areas of the body, and sprays can be good for hard-to-reach areas such as the back. Make sure you use the right amount and apply correctly!
For more on sunscreens, see www.sunsible.org.au.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Controlling body odour – Why?
Some body odour is a good thing – pheromones in our sweat play an important role in sexual attraction. But in Australian society it is generally accepted that people should minimise unpleasant body odour.
Factors such as your activity level, lifestyle, bodyweight and amount of sweat produced affect your body odour. Body odour also changes with age and stage of life. For example, during puberty is when many people start to notice changes to how their body smells.
Unpleasant body odour can arise from:
- Chemicals in sweat
- Skin bacteria that thrive in warm, moist, dark places
- Wastes excreted through the skin (e.g. metabolised alcohol)
- Unwashed clothes
- Skin infections
Controlling body odour – How?
For some people, daily bathing will satisfactorily reduce body odour. Another easy way of reducing odour is to keep clothes clean and fresh.
Shaving underarm hair can also help reduce body odour. Having hair in this region traps sweat, meaning that the armpit stays moist for longer and can encourage bacterial growth that leads to odour.
Many people choose to use anti-perspirants or deodorants. Anti-perspirants block underarm pores to reduce sweat. Deodorant doesn’t prevent sweating but uses antiseptic to kill odour-causing bacteria. Both product types are available in ranges for women and for men, in roll-on, spray, stick and cream formats, and in a broad range of fragrances and varieties to make you smell good and help your confidence.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Facial care – Why?
Your face needs some special attention as it has thinner, more delicate skin than most other parts of your body. And its appearance can be intimately connected to self-esteem and social interactions.
Substances like dirt, make-up, excess oil, sweat, bacteria and dead skin cells can accumulate on the face and clog pores. Pimples and acne can form when clogged pores become infected by bacteria.
Shaving is another aspect of facial care for many men who choose to be smooth-chinned. Shaving can be an invasive activity because in the process of removing hairs it also removes microscopic layers of skin. This can help keep the pores open and the skin healthy, but frequent shaving can lead to skin irritation.
What length would you guess as the record for the world’s longest beard? A metre? Two, tops?
Nope. The record for the longest beard is 5.33 metres, set by Hans Nilsen Langseth the “King of Whiskers” in 1927. The beard was donated to the Smithsonian in Washington DC where it is now kept in storage.[viii]
Facial care – How?
Choose a gentle cleanser that is specifically designed for the face. There are many specialised facial care products catering for dry, normal, oily, combination and sensitive skin types, including cleansers, exfoliants, toners, moisturisers and sunscreens. Many choices mean that you can find a routine that is right for your skin and adapt this routine as your needs change over time.
Cleansers are available as soap-free, liquids, creams and gels. There are also specific cleansers for removing make up from the delicate eye area. Regular exfoliation can also help remove dirt and dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, helping to keep pores open. But, remember that exfoliating or cleansing too often can strip natural oils from skin, causing dryness and damage.
After cleansing, toners can help remove all traces of dirt, make-up or cleanser that remain after cleansing, and restore the natural pH of the skin.
Moisturisers help keep your skin smooth, supple and able to optimally perform all of its important functions. It is important to choose a moisturiser that suits your skin type and also to consider sun protection. As the face is usually exposed to the sun, even for a short period each day, you may want to choose a daytime moisturiser that contains sun protection. In the evening, apply a moisturiser without sunscreen.
There are also many varieties of sunscreen that can be applied after moisturising. More detail on sunscreens can be found at About you > Skin.
Shaving after a hot shower or after washing your face with hot water can help to soften facial hair and relax facial muscles. There are also pre-shave oils and creams to pre-condition the skin. If you choose the manual razor option, there is a range of moisturising shaving creams or gels to lather your face; using a shaving brush can help coat every hair with lather as well as producing a thicker lather than may be possible with fingers alone. Electric shavers are also available. Following shaving, aftershave products can be used to soothe the skin and leave it feeling smooth and smelling good.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Clothing hygiene – Why?
Your clothes can absorb things that your body sheds, like sweat, oils and skin cells, as well as things from the external environment.
Dirty clothes, especially underwear and socks, can harbour microorganisms. Re-wearing dirty clothes many times can lead to skin infections, and bad odours can arise from bacteria that accumulate on stains, from mould on clothing, and from stale cigarette smoke that has permeated fabric.
Shoe hygiene is also important. Feet have lots of sweat glands, so closed shoes can provide warm, moist and dark environments where bacteria and fungi can thrive. Bad smells and conditions such as athlete’s foot (tinea) can result!
Clothing hygiene – How?
You should change and wash your clothing regularly.
Choose a quality laundry detergent to remove general soils and stains. There are many varieties of laundry detergent to choose from: powders and liquids, for top- or front-loader washing machines, for whites, colours or dark clothing, with added enzymes, with added fabric softener, with a variety of fragrances or fragrance-free, for sensitive skin and with low phosphorus or no added phosphorus.
If you see a stain, treat it fast! There are many types of stain removal products, including spot treatments, soakers and in-wash products. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and check your garment for colourfastness.
To help prevent the growth of mould, wet wash items should be hung or dried as soon as the wash cycle has finished, and damp clothing should not be left at the bottom of the washing basket. Mould can also build up in your washing machine, so leave the lid or door open between cycles.
Wearing leather shoes and cotton socks allows your feet to breathe more than materials such as vinyl. If you have been wearing a pair of shoes all day at work or school, take them off when you get home to try and give them a chance to air overnight. Some of your shoes may also be washable.
For more advice on effective and sustainable clothes washing check out www.washwise.org.au.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Oral hygiene – Why?
Teeth and gums play a vital role in at least two very important activities – eating and talking!
Teeth bite and chew food so that it can be swallowed, and they also help with word formation. Gums cover the bones of the jaw and help hold teeth tightly in place. Gingivitis is the early stage of gum disease where gums become infected and inflamed. Periodontitis is later stage gum disease and can result in loss of teeth.
Food, which can get stuck in your teeth after eating, contributes to the formation of plaque. Plaque is a sticky, colourless layer of bacteria, mucus and food that sticks to tooth surfaces. If not removed, plaque can harden to form tartar that can only be removed by the dentist.
Bacteria produce acid that can cause cavities, and volatile sulfur-containing substances that can cause bad breath. Bad breath can also arise from diseases in teeth, gums and the mouth.
Oral hygiene – How?
Regular brushing and flossing dislodges food caught in your teeth and helps remove plaque. Choose a quality toothpaste, toothbrush and dental floss and use the technique recommended by your dentist. Remember to rinse after brushing or flossing.
Toothpaste contains mild abrasive particles that gently remove plaque and food residue from teeth. Most toothpastes contain fluorides that protect tooth enamel. Fluoride has had a large impact on reducing tooth decay since the 1960s and 70s. Some toothpastes also contain anti-bacterial agents to reduce plaque formation or bacteriostatic ingredients to stop the growth of plaque.
Many varieties of toothpaste are available: different flavours, to prevent plaque, anti-cavity; for sensitive teeth, for kids, for smokers, with mouthwash and with whitening, antibacterial and breath-freshening agents.
Toothbrushes also come in many different forms, such as manual, electric, kids’, hard, medium and soft, with different sized heads, with built-in gum massaging-bristles, and with built-in tongue-cleaner. It is important to choose the right sized toothbrush with a suitable texture and hardness: ‘soft’ will be the best choice for most people as tougher bristles can damage gums and tooth enamel.
Dental floss helps remove food and plaque from between the teeth and under the gumline. Floss comes in nylon or plastic, unflavoured or flavoured, waxed or unwaxed varieties.
Regular oral care and visits to the dentist will help fight cavities, gum disease and bad breath.
Use of mouthwash can also help you maintain good oral hygiene. Mouthwashes come in different flavours and can be breath-freshening only, or also include fluoride and active ingredients to reduce dental plaque, tooth sensitivity and gum disease. Antibiotic and anaesthetic mouthwashes are also available by prescription.
If you have children, model and encourage good oral hygiene practices. Even though children lose their first set of teeth, good oral hygiene habits can be formed early in life. Also, discourage children from swallowing toothpaste: excess fluoride intake can lead to fluorosis – white mottling and flecking on teeth. For infants, gently wipe their gums after each meal using a damp washcloth and try not to let your child fall asleep with a bottle in their mouth!
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Naughty bits – feminine & masculine & sexual hygiene
Feminine Hygiene – Why?
Sweat, urine and natural excretions from the vagina create a moist, warm environment that can be a haven for the growth of microorganisms. The healthy body always has certain microorganisms present in moist areas. However, regular personal hygiene helps keep the balance between what is normal and what is undesirable or unhealthy, including unpleasant odours and infections such as vaginal and urinary tract infections.
Menstruation can also leave women feeling less clean and fresh than usual. Effectively absorbing the monthly flow is an important part of staying clean and comfortable.
Feminine Hygiene – How?
Regular cleaning of your external genitals and the anus with a gentle cleanser and water, followed by rinsing and towel drying, will help avoid unpleasant odours and infection. The internal parts of the vagina are self-cleaning so douches and vaginal sprays should not be used unless recommended by your doctor.
Wiping from front to back after urinating or after a bowel movement is another important way to help avoid infection.
During menstruation, washing every day with a quality cleaning product and frequently changing your pad, tampon or other device should be perfectly adequate to minimise bad odours and the chance of infection.
There is a huge range of feminine hygiene products to choose from. Tampons come in different sizes, and absorbencies, pads come with and without wings and in different shapes and absorbencies, and there are also menstrual cups, discs and underwear. Pantyliners can be used to protect the underwear from vaginal discharge or slight bladder leakage.
If you are using tampons, it is recommended that you choose the lowest absorbency tampon for your blood flow and change tampons roughly every four hours (and no more than eight) to minimise the chance of toxic shock syndrome, caused by the build-up of bacteria in the vagina. Pads should be changed before they are soaked through or start to smell bad.
Wearing cotton underwear and breathable outer fabrics will also help keep you feeling fresh, as opposed to tight pants and pantyhose which cause greater perspiration. You should also change out of soiled underwear and wet swimwear as soon as practical.
Masculine hygiene – Why?
Sweat, urine and excretions can lead to unpleasant odours and infection in the genital area if adequate hygiene is not practiced.
Uncircumcised men also need to be careful to prevent the build-up of smegma under the penis foreskin. Formed from dead skin and oily sebum, smegma is a natural lubricant and has a protective function. However, if allowed to accumulate it can harden, become bad-smelling due to off-gassing of microorganisms, and lead to infection.
Masculine hygiene – How?
Daily cleaning of the penis, scrotum and anus with water and a mild body cleanser, followed by rinsing and towel drying, will help avoid unpleasant odours and infection. Gently pulling back the foreskin and rinsing the area with warm water while showering should prevent build-up of smegma.
After urinating, the last few drops of urine can be shaken or wiped gently from the penis, and the anus should be wiped after each bowel movement.
Wearing breathable underwear is also important to help prevent growth of bacteria and fungi in the genital area. Wet or soiled underwear should be changed as soon as possible.
Sexual Hygiene – Why?
Sexual hygiene is crucial in minimising the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. These include thrush, AIDS, herpes, genital warts, gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia, pubic lice (“crabs”), vaginitis and hepatitis.
Sexual Hygiene – How?
Another aspect of good sexual hygiene is choosing to have protected sex. This means using a condom for intercourse. Male condoms come in different shapes, sizes, textures and flavours, all of which are a matter of personal preference. They can be made from latex, to be used with a water-based lubricant, or polyurethane, which can be used with oil or water-based lubricant. Female condoms are also available in Australia.
Dental dams are another type of barrier that can be used for oral sex.
Protected sex is less important if you and your partner are in a long-term, monogamous sexual relationship, and are not also using condoms for contraceptive purposes.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
Special care – aged, infant & wound hygiene
Good personal hygiene is important for people of all ages. However, increasing age can bring a range of challenges to maintaining good, independent personal hygiene.
Decreased mobility can make the bathroom a potentially dangerous environment. Slippery tiles, as well as difficulty getting into the shower or bath, standing without support, turning, bending and transferring weight can all lead to increased risk of falls. Bathroom modifications and home care aids such as rails, shower chairs and non-slip mats could help promote independent bathing. Another option could be to intersperse showers or baths with sponging and body wipes.
Decreased strength or grip can make turning on taps difficult.
Dementia can make bathing and toileting very difficult, as people can lose their ability to recognise or use the shower and toilet. This can result in incontinence, poor hygiene and risk of infection.
Aged skin can be much thinner, more fragile and prone to bruising and cuts than younger skin.
Also, trapping of moisture under skin folds (that may occur after incontinence, or if the person has difficulty drying themself) can make these areas highly sensitive, itchy, and at risk of developing fungal infection. Wearing natural fabrics and use of topical creams can help provide relief.
Because aged skin produces less sebum than younger skin it can become dry and cracked. Use of mild cleansers, bath oils and moisturisers can help restore skin suppleness.
If independent personal hygiene becomes too difficult, it may be necessary to have an in-home carer and modifications to the home environment.
Babies and toddlers are completely dependent on their parents or carers to maintain their personal hygiene and, eventually, to teach them to care for themselves. It is important to teach and model good hygiene practices from an early age.
Babies need to be bathed regularly. There are many specialised cleansers, skin care products and baby shampoos designed specifically for a baby’s delicate skin. It is important to thoroughly dry the skin, paying particular attention to skin creases where moisture can accumulate and cause irritation.
You will also need to change the baby’s nappy frequently to prevent sore skin and bad smells. Baby wipes can make the task of cleaning after urination or defecation easy.
If you have a minor injury to the skin such as a cut or scrape, gently clean the area with cold water.
Minor wounds are best left uncovered unless there is risk of cross-infection or of dirt getting into the wound. In these cases, a dressing should be applied to cover the area. Depending on the injury, and if you are concerned about infection, you may also need to wash with a skin antiseptic or apply an antiseptic cream and cover the area.
ABOUT YOU – PERSONAL HYGIENE
“Ah-CHOO!!” No one likes being sneezed on. Or coughed on for that matter. Good hygiene habits mean doing your bit to keep your germs to yourself.
When you cough or sneeze, catch it by covering your mouth – ideally with a tissue or with your elbow. Use a tissue if you have a runny nose. Then bin your tissue or wash your hands straight away.
If you are sick, consider staying home from work or school, and be extra vigilant in following good hygiene practices to avoid passing on your illness to others. It is best that you don’t visit anyone in hospital or who you know is susceptible to illness.
Other aspects of good personal hygiene habits are getting a good night’s sleep, eating a healthy diet including breakfast, and exercising regularly.
[i] Cosmetics Europe, ‘Consumer Insights 2017.’ (Based on 4116 online responses representative of the gender distribution and age groups across ten EU Member States)
[ii] Fierer N et al, 2008, ‘The influence of sex, handedness, and washing on the diversity of hand surface bacteria’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, 105(46), 17994–9.
[iii] World Health Organization, 2009, ‘Hand hygiene: Why, how and when’. (Accessed 3/1/2019)
[iv] finer.com.au, 27 June 2016, ‘Sleeping with Siri: Australians getting intimate with their mobile phones’.
[v] Food Safety Information Council, 15 October 2009, ‘Take the time to wash your hands – Australians still failing handwashing test’.
[vi] Coventry J, 1846, ‘On the Mischiefs of Uncleanliness, and the Public Importance of Ablution’, The Lancet, 47(1184), 523–525.
[vii] United Press International Inc., 7 August 2010, ‘Trouble getting a date? Try showering’.
[viii] Natasha Gelling, 19 November 2014, ‘The World’s Longest Beard Is One Of The Smithsonian’s Strangest Artifacts’, Smithsonianmag.com
[ix] BBC, 2015, ‘How often should you wash your clothes?’.