A lack of hygiene, both personal and in our surroundings, encourages the proliferation of disease; in fact, the word hygiene derives from Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health. Nowadays, however, with the current level of hygiene around us, we can say that washing ourselves as often as we do cannot be justified for health reasons. Instead it corresponds to sociocultural motives: smelling of perfume attracts approval and having your hair even slightly greasy is disapproved of. The manufacturers of hygiene products undoubtedly take advantage of the natural concern for health to stress the idea that “washing often is essential”. However, excess hygiene involves excessive consumption of natural resources and can even result in health problems, particularly if the most common products on Western markets are used.

We wash ourselves to eliminate dirt (which sticks to the skin either because it is oily or because of contact with sebum (which is greasy) and sweat) and smells (produced by volatile substances generated by biological activity on the surface of the skin, above all that of microbes). By washing ourselves, we alter the cutaneous “ecosystem”, which comes back into balance after a while. In general, the culture we live in makes us think we need to wash ourselves quite often. To minimise both the alterations to the skin and the consumption of natural resources, it is a good idea to set a limit on how often we wash ourselves.

How can we go about it:
  • We should not take notice of claims feeding the idea that washing often is good, which are highly visible on the gel and shampoo containers of many brands and all types (conventional and natural). They often correspond more to the manufacturers’ need to accustom us to using these products than to our need to be clean.
  • We should ask ourselves whether being clean only means having just had a shower. We should determine whether or not we need to have a shower by observing our nature (whether we are prone to sweating, for example), the activity we do (which can change at different times of year) and where we are (in a city with a frenetic pace or in a village in a temperate climate). Do we know how long we take to smell of sweat if we don’t have a shower every day?
  • Washing our hair often can have a rebound effect, making it counterproductive. That means we end up having dirtier hair than if we washed it less, particularly if we have greasy hair. We should wash our hair less often and study what happens. We should also look for less irritating detergents (based on glucose, see next tab).
  • We should ask ourselves if we really want to smell of perfume all the time, or if it would be all right not to smell of anything. We should ask ourselves whether it would be too damaging if our hair did not look perfectly smart for the odd day from time to time.
  • We should overcome the “social shame” of saying that we don’t have a shower every day or wearing the same piece of clothing for more than one day.

If we take care to get less dirty, we will need less soap.

How can we go about it:
  • Plain water and a sponge with no soap will also wash off “easy dirt”.
  • If we like to have a shower in the morning to wake us up, we should think that we don’t need to use soap.
  • In order to save on conditioner, one way of counteracting hard water, which makes hair coarse, is to apply a glass of water with a little vinegar after rinsing.
  • Clothes made of natural fabrics, like cotton, make us sweat less than synthetic fibres.

Additional ingredients, largely vitamins and proteins, are put into many gels and shampoos to make the product seem more “healthy and nourishing”. We should detach skin health from the use of gels and shampoos.

How can we go about it:
  • We should not believe claims saying that gels or shampoos nourish our skin, strengthen our hair or regulate our scalp functions…What keeps the skin healthy so it can do its job properly, is eating well, having healthy habits and intervening or altering the cutaneous ecosystem as little as necessary.
  • These claims are particularly deceptive in the case of gels, because the time they spend touching the skin is very short and, when they are rinsed off, no trace of them is left. There is therefore no chance of them having any therapeutic effect on the skin.
  • It is a little more probable that the “therapeutic complements” of shampoos will have an effect because we usually have shampoo on our heads for a while, perhaps we apply it more than once, and polymers are added to shampoo formulas which chemically “hang on” to the skin. This causes an effect which the manufacturers call build up: in time a layer of “shampoo residues” forms on the scalp, which means the hair is flattened. This means other ingredients have to be added to shampoos to break down this layer of residues… and more synthetic, potentially toxic and polluting ingredients are accumulated.
  • Various countries have banned gel or shampoo packaging and promotional material from containing claims attributing any curative properties to the product. But this rule may be broken, for example in the labelling of Yipsophilia gel (Spain) it says: OrangeBlossom soap is suitable for curing skin with eczema, psoriasis and dermatosis. Pantene shampoo says Healthy looking hair. And all pots of Sanex say Healthy skin.

Gels and shampoos contain water, detergent and components with other functions. We should look for the products with the simplest, most natural formulas.

How can we go about it:
  • Within so-called natural cosmetics, ingredients of natural origin (mainly plant extracts) are used as much as possible because they are neither alien to the environment nor the body and because they are very safe, in the sense that both the damaging and positive effects on the body are well known. Also, in order to simplify the chemical formula and minimise the consumption of natural resources, ingredients with more superfluous functions, such as colourings or thickeners, are usually avoided.
  • Some brands of natural gels and shampoos are sold in different Mediterranean countries, particularly on the northern shore: Santé, Món Deconatur, Dr. Hauschka, Logona, Annemarie Börlind. If we buy from manufacturers of natural hygiene products, we help to make it possible for a clean cosmetic industry to be developed and we cease to collaborate with the oil economy.
  • According to what is written on the labels, all products are the most natural thing in the world, but in many cases these claims are false ones. The marks we can find on some products can help us to identify the most natural ones.
  • There are some brands that use plant extracts, typically essential oils for perfume, but also many synthetic and even problematic ingredients. These are products we might call pseudonatural. On the following tab, we will see how to identify whether a gel or shampoo contains problematic ingredients.
  • We can find both natural and pseudonatural products at herbalists, diet shops and green product shops.

In both conventional and natural products, we should look for the most advisable components and avoid the less advisable ones.

How can we go about it:
  • Glucose-based detergents are the least aggressive for the skin and the least polluting for aquatic ecosystems. The products with the word glucoside highest up the ingredients list will have the highest proportion of glucose-based detergents. This type of detergent is little used because it does not make lather and we do not like this.
  • As well as acting as perfume, plant extracts can have other functions: relaxing, stimulating, promoting skin pigmentation, purifying, activating the circulation, making the hair shine, etc. We will recognise them by plant names in Latin (rosemary, for example, is Rosmarinus officinalis), but be careful: if they are followed by oil this refers to essential oils and these can set off allergies.
  • The function of colourings is only to give a gel or shampoo a particular appearance. They are almost all synthetic and some are classified as dangerous. If we want to get rid of them, we should look to see that the letters CI (followed by a number) do not appear on the ingredients list.
  • Here we can find brands of body hygiene products on sale in this country for which no animal experiments have been carried out in the manufacturing process.
  • In the thousand varieties of products we are offered for the hair, body and hands, 90% of the formula is common to all of them. There is nothing special about the ones sold in chemists (although if they are sold under prescription there is, because these are formulated specifically for particular disorders). Products for children are less aggressive for the skin.
  • On the next tab we will find the most problematic ingredients for health.

Making soap is environmentally less costly than making gel because the formula is much simpler and it is totally harmless. But if we use soap too often it dries our skin, because it is alkaline, as water usually is (because of the chalk it contains), while the skin is slightly acid. To wash our bodies, if we do not wash ourselves too often, we can use soap instead of gel.

How can we go about it:
  • Most bars for hands are made of soap.
  • On the Internet (for example here) we can find recipes for making soap at home.
  • If we wash ourselves with soap it is more likely that chalky residues will be left on basins, showers and baths. To remove them, we can rub them with a cloth moistened with vinegar.

The word hygiene derives from Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health. It is true that the establishment of public services of running water and sewerage in towns and cities was crucial in the elimination of infectious diseases that were frequent before. Nowadays, though, the level of public hygiene in the vast majority of places is sufficient to banish health fears due to lack of hygiene. However, we should be concerned about health because of some of the ingredients found precisely in hygiene products. We should not apply harmful substances or practices to our skin or hair.

How can we go about it:

  • We can look to see whether any of the ingredients recognised as toxic are on the ingredients list on the label. If we know how to identify them, we can identify contradictions, like that of The Body Shop brand.
  • We should avoid perms, dyeing, straightening and other aggressive treatments for hair, which makes it split and become coarse and difficult to brush. To “fix it”, conditioners (silicones) can be added to the shampoo formula. These form a kind of lining around the hair, which increases the complexity of the product, its green footprint and, potentially, its danger.
  • If we want to change our look, we should look for less aggressive ways than the ones appearing in the previous point. In any case, we should try to detach personal satisfaction from having a change of look from time to time.