5 Essential Personal Hygiene Products

Victorian-era women at a Turkish bath
Turkish bath: not just for hygiene.
Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images

You can't tell from most period dramas, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when personal hygiene wasn't considered a high priority. Some of our ancestors spent the majority of their time doing hard physical labor just to meet their basic needs like food and shelter, so keeping their bodies perfectly clean wasn't at the top of their to-do lists. Even if you had the time, it wouldn't have always been practical. Nineteenth-century settlers considered a weekly bath sufficient, assuming there was enough water. Even the wealthy, who had the time and money to spend on their hygiene, often focused more on perfumes and powders than keeping clean.

Today, many of us believe that we need a ton of different hygiene products in order to be physically presentable. These products aren't cheap, either; a British study in 2006 showed that the average woman in that country will spend the equivalent of more than $50,000 on her hair alone [source: Daily Mail]. It also takes a lot of time to use them -- around two years out of our lifetime, according to the same study.


In truth, though, you can get by with a total of just five personal hygiene products.

5: Soap

You might have three different types of soap in your bathroom: hand, body and face. But are all of those soaps really necessary? Historically, soap was simply a fat (often an animal byproduct such as lard or beef tallow) cooked with an alkali (such as potash) to create a chemical reaction known as saponification. This resulted in a foaming substance -- either liquid or solid, depending on the alkali -- that helped remove dirt and grime.

Today's soap doesn't always meet the traditional soap criteria due to the use of modern ingredients like petroleum-based detergents and synthetic surfactants. However, many companies still sell soaps made with natural oils, usually replacing the animal fat with a vegetable-based oil like olive, palm or coconut.


The truth is, you could really use a single soap to wash all the parts of your body; there's really no need for three of them. While antibacterial soaps for hand-washing have become popular, many researchers believe that constant use could actually be harmful, as they can kill off good bacteria and also create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The real benefit in hand-washing may come in the scrubbing motion, which physically removes bacteria.

So if you're thinking of going with just one soap, what kind should you chose? Consider a castile soap. This firm, white olive-oil-based soap was first made in the Castile region of Spain in the early 1600s. An extra step in the process, including the addition of brine, creates a pure soap suitable for use all over your body. It won't dry out or harm sensitive skin, either. Most companies that make castile soaps use essential oils like lavender, rosemary or eucalyptus to scent them, so you don't have to give up the nice smell that you get from your current body wash. As a bonus, castile soap is usually much less expensive, especially if you buy it in liquid, concentrated form.

4: Shampoo

Technically, you could really cut down on your personal hygiene products and wash your hair with the same soap that you use for your body. A separate soap for hair didn't really exist until the 1860s, when people weren't generally bathing all that often anyway. But shampoo is now very different from regular soap. It contains ingredients designed not only to remove dirt, but also get rid of excess oil, dandruff and buildup from the environment. Shampoo is also supposed to make your hair shiny, smooth, moisturized and manageable.

Even when more frequent bathing became the norm, people still weren't washing their hair frequently. In the early 20th century, it was typical to wash your hair once a month. An article in the New York Times dating from 1908 stated that you could wash your hair every two weeks [source: NPR]. Some point to the 1970s shampoo ads featuring models with shiny, beautiful locks as the inspiration for daily or near-daily hair-washing.


So, we've established that shampoo is a necessity for most people. But unless you have a problem such as dandruff, or a specific hair condition you want to manage, such as protecting dyed hair, it doesn't really matter whether you choose an expensive salon brand or the no-name one. All of them will get your hair clean, and that's the basic idea. More expensive shampoos claim to keep your hair healthy with the addition of vitamins, but keep this in mind: Hair isn't alive, so there's only so much that those vitamins can do for it.

3: Deodorant

Sweating is a necessary bodily function -- it cools down our bodies when we're hot (although for some of us, it also happens when we're nervous). But like so many other body functions, it's considered pretty distasteful. Unless you're exercising, visible sweat is often associated with being unclean -- and let's not forget the body odor that can come with it. Because the sweat glands responsible for body odor are highly concentrated in the underarms, most of us apply some type of combination deodorant/antiperspirant both to keep down the amount of sweat that we produce and to cover up any potential odor. So when we say "deodorant," we typically mean this combination product.

As you might imagine, deodorant is a fairly modern invention. The first deodorant patent, for a product called Mum, was issued in 1888, and it soon took its place in the bathroom as an essential personal hygiene product. Most deodorants today use some type of aluminum compound, such as anhydrous aluminum zirconium tetrachlorohydrex gly. This ingredient closes the pores in your underarm skin, preventing sweat from escaping. Some aluminum-zirconium compounds also absorb any sweat that you do release.


Unfortunately, some people are allergic to aluminum or zirconium. There's also some controversy about the potential toxicity of these compounds. If you find yourself with itchy armpits after using a deodorant/antiperspirant, you may need to try different types to find one that works for you. Or, consider a natural product. Most of them are pure deodorants instead of combination deodorant/antiperspirants. Body odor is actually caused by bacteria on the skin, not the sweat itself, so unless you have a problem with excess sweat, these products may work for you. Some are made with potassium alum, a mineral salt, or include essential oils that are both astringents (which dry out the skin) and have a pleasant aroma.

2: Toothpaste

Unlike a lot of personal hygiene products on the market, toothpaste serves a very important function. Although there are varieties that claim to whiten your teeth and freshen your breath, toothpaste's primary function is to clean our teeth. Of course, it's unattractive to have cavities, tartar and bad breath, but brushing your teeth is more about being able to keep them than anything else.

Toothpaste is a dentifrice -- a product used to maintain oral hygiene. The ancient Romans used tooth powders made from abrasives like ashes, seafood shells and animal bones, but the modern version is, once again, an invention of the 19th century. Most early toothpastes included baking soda (the abrasive) and hydrogen peroxide (an antiseptic, disinfectant and natural whitener), which are still used in toothpastes today. Fluoride has been added to toothpastes since the 1950s and has been shown to help prevent tooth decay. In addition, toothpastes may include artificial sweeteners and flavoring as well as an antibacterial ingredient to prevent gingivitis, tartar and bad breath.


As with most personal hygiene products, more expensive isn't necessarily better. The least expensive toothpaste will clean your teeth just as well as the most expensive one. If you have sensitive teeth or want to whiten your teeth you'll need special toothpaste, but it's mostly about your personal preferences.

1: Toilet Paper

If you doubt the inclusion of toilet paper in a list of essential personal hygiene products, just think about how you felt the last time that you needed some and didn't have any. It's essential, all right, and no other product in this list could be called more personal.

We haven't always used this rolled-up material made from wood pulp to get that part of our bodies clean, but there's always been a necessity for it. So what came before that? Other types of paper, usually discarded items such as newspaper or catalog pages, were in use in the early 19th century. Before that, it was all about natural items, such as sponges, corn cobs or leaves. When the Scott brand first began selling rolls of toilet paper in the 1890s, the company was too embarrassed to put its name on the product. Some toilet paper manufacturers called it "medicinal," while Charmin featured a silhouette of a woman on its packaging in the 1920s to associate toilet paper with femininity. Even today, most toilet paper packages read "bath tissue."


The average American uses more than 50 sheets of toilet paper a day and 20,000 sheets of toilet paper a year [source: ABC News]. When you think about it, that's a lot of paper going down the drain. Many of us have our favorite brand of toilet paper, and the more expensive brands are typically softer and thicker. But if you're concerned about the environmental impact, check out some of the recycled products on the market.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Cleaning Institute. "Clean Living: Soaps & Detergent History." ACI. 2010. (Sept. 13, 2010)http://www.cleaninginstitute.org/clean_living/soaps__detergent_history.aspx
  • Appleyard, Diana. "Could you survive without shampoo?" The Daily Mail Online. July 5, 2009. (Sept 12, 2010)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-394226/Could-survive-shampoo.html
  • Aubrey, Allison. "When it comes to shampoo, less is more." NPR. March 19, 2009. (Sept. 13, 2010)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102062969
  • Bodanich, Walt. "Toxic toothpaste made in China is found in U.S." New York Times. June 2, 2007. (Sept. 14, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/02/us/02toothpaste.html?_r=1
  • The Daily Mail. "Women spend two-and-a-half years on their hair." The Daily Mail Online. Aug. 29, 2006. (Sept. 11, 2010)http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-402793/Women-spend-half-years-hair.html
  • Heller, Jacob L.. "Toothpaste overdose." U.S. National Library of Medicine and Institutes of Health. 2010. (Sept. 14, 2010)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002745.htm
  • Hunt, John A. "A short history of soap." The Pharmaceutical Journal. Vol. 263. No. 7076. Dec. 18/25, 1999. (Sept 13, 2010)http://www.pharmj.com/Editorial/19991218/articles/soap.html
  • Ivory. "Pure Fun: History." 2010. (Sept. 13, 2010) http://www.ivory.com/PureFun_History.htm
  • Kolpakov, Val. "Toothpaste History." Toothpaste World. 2009. (Sept 13, 2010)http://www.toothpasteworld.com/history.php
  • The New Zealand Herald. "Deodorants have been used for centuries." George Mason University's History News Network. Jan. 17, 2006. (Sept. 14, 2010)http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/20563.html
  • Rodriguez, Linda. "Why toilet paper belongs to America." CNN: Mental Floss. July 8, 2009. (Sept. 13, 2010)http://edition.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/07/07/mf.toilet.paper.history/
  • Wolf, Buck. "Weird News: The Wolf Files." ABC News. April 11, 2001. (Sept. 14, 2010)http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=93597&page=1