How bodily acceptance can comfort the planet
While non-sustainable hygienic products bear the same social and environmental burdens as other cosmetics, their use is often dictated by cultural norms. Such norms make the transition towards a sustainable bathroom a valuable occasion for reflecting on our hygienic habits but also make us more resistant to changing.
We don’t want to talk about it but we all do it. We brush, spray, wipe, shave, floss, to avoid smells, stains, and overall ‘dirtiness’. While some of these actions are necessary to prevent germs and diseases, others are dictated by social norms, especially for women. No matter what your reasoning for maintaining a certain level of personal hygiene is, each of the products you use ends up directly on your skin. Subsequently, the quality of your hygienic products impacts your health and well-being as well as the planet. This issue, Natural Hygiene, is an extension of our Natural Skincare one. It’s just that here we talk about all things hidden.
There are two main reasons to use cosmetics: improving our looks and maintaining a basic level of hygiene. The former is all about glowing skin, the latter is far less glamorous. We wash, brush, flush, roll, and perform all these kinds of activities not to seem like we do not put enough care into ourselves (or, naturally, to feel good about ourselves, but the line is rather blurry). This is the fascinating aspect of personal hygiene: it is as much about our comfort and well-being as it is about social norms and expectations, fuelled by advertising. Personal hygiene norms vary greatly for different genders, for example, when it comes to the acceptable smell or amount of hair. Not to mention that around half of the population menstruates, which brings about a whole different set of issues.
What is ‘normal’?
The cultural forming of hygienic habits is the reason why we decided to separate the issues of Natural Skincare and Natural Hygiene. All the problems that affect sustainable skincare are also relevant for personal hygiene. Products are cheap because of lax regulations that allow for outsourcing the production costs onto the workers, the environment, or the consumers (we write about this in-depth in Issue 2: Natural Skincare editorial). Subsequently, hygienic products often contain ingredients that are unhealthy for their users and potentially toxic to the environment. The most popular example here is the aluminium in deodorants, linked to breast cancer and air and water pollution. The way less known one is bleached toilet paper, which happens to be the very norm in our toilets. Bleaching with chlorine is toxic for our bodies but also the planet. Yet, quite frankly, I find it hard to accept the pro-bidet arguments. It feels weird – I have been wiping my whole life, after all.
Our hygienic habits may just be the most difficult to tweak towards more sustainable ones. Hygiene is far more personal, and therefore less talked about, than the innocent skincare. This can also be why sometimes very strange myths arise, for example, that toothpaste containing fluoride closes your ‘third eye’ (I only took this one as a potentially unhealthy fake story when my dentist, a not-so-spiritual lady, warned me not to worry about my ‘third eye’ or any of my chakras). When discussing our hygienic routines in preparation for this issue, we found out that our ideas of ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ are very different, laughingly asking each other ‘Do you think that is gross’? It turned out that cleaning ears, for example, which one of us found a weekly essential, was advised against by another one’s doctor. What is obvious or working for one of us can sound like from a completely different planet for another, and that is fine. We all have different bodies with varying needs.
Your body knows best
As always with Choiceful, we recommend you to, above all, feel okay with any change you decide to make. While sustainable lifestyle matters as an inspiration to others and a little curb on our climate anxieties, switching to different consumer products will not do the job on its own. The change needs to be systemic, and so affect not only supply chains and modes of production but also the way we perceive personal hygiene. We believe that turning your bathroom into a more sustainable place is primarily a matter of your (re-)connection with your bodily needs. In the West, especially in the cities, our living environments become more and more sterile. Subsequently, stains, pimples, oils, or smells, are immediately eliminated because they tell a story of a lack of diligence or care. By eliminating the unwanted yet biologically inherent parts of our bodies, we may be losing sight of what these parts want to tell us about our lifestyle. Sweat or pimples, for example, can signal a stressful situation or unhealthy habits and so should be observed before they are covered up.
Body imperfections look way different on genders, and there is a whole large market dedicated to highlighting gender differences. Gender-neutral beauty trends are a spark of hope but the majority of shelves in cosmetic stores still offer clear-cut gender-divided sections. Does a bar of soap, or a shampoo, or perfume, need to be masculine or feminine? Who decides which smell should be associated with which gender? Can it be that most of it is just a marketing trick to double the sold amount? Finally, how come is it that ‘masculine men’ can have a twenty-in-one bottle of soap, shampoo, shaving cream, and probably also washing liquid and dishwashing soap, while a ‘feminine woman’ needs a separate face, body, hair, and every-other-body-part soap? Superficial gender differences often force women to spend way more than men on cosmetics. Make-up aside (not to make it too bitter), women are bombarded with a multitude of products that simply do not exist for men. Think about intimate hygiene gels, perfume for every occasion, body lotions, feet creams, hair conditioners, face masks, and, of course, menstrual products.
Not everybody(‘s wallet) bleeds
An average woman menstruates for 6.25 years of her life. Apart from the cramps, the destroyed underwear and clothes (which bring about extra costs), and the sudden devouring of kilograms of chocolate (which do not grow on trees either), a Western, middle-class woman spends about 11 euros a month on menstrual products. ‘Period poverty’ becomes a real issue as soon as we go down from the comfortable middle-class economic bracket, becoming a major obstacle for female education in some developing countries. Besides the spending inequality – men have no comparable hygienic needs – classical menstrual products such as pads or tampons are highly polluting to the environment. So here we are, bleeding, in pain, with less money and a higher environmental footprint… Talks about a period tax should, therefore, include creating sustainable alternatives to menstrual products. One of such alternatives, the menstrual cup, also happens to revolutionize comfort during periods, so it is a win-win for those that can use it.
All the hygienic choices
As you can see, there is a lot to talk about. In this issue, we will dive into healthy and comfortable hygienic products. Since it is such a personal matter, we will ask several producers and retailers about their products and what motivated them to join the sustainable market. We will, as always, share our personal tips and tricks, which in this case will vary greatly. Remember that you do not have to change overnight or at all. Do only what feels comfortable for your body, mind, and wallet.
Sources & additional resources
All the issues with toilet paper and a sustainable guide from the Ethical Consumer: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/home-garden/shopping-guide/toilet-paper
Is aluminium really in deodorants and why it matters: https://www.byrdie.com/why-is-aluminum-in-deodorant-bad-4844790
Why fluoride is good and important for our teeth: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/you-shouldnt-buy-fluoride-free-toothpaste#What-is-fluoride?
Period poverty explained: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/period-poverty-everything-you-need-to-know/
A global NGO fighting to end period poverty: https://period.org/
The rise of gender-neutral beauty outlined: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gender-neutral-beauty-rise-trend-unisex-brands-grooming-marketing-diversity-stereotypes-a8325026.html