How clean are you? We delve into the washing habits of UK women

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We’re bombarded with messages that suggest women need to be clean and groomed at all times. Stylist asked four of our favourite writers to share their real hygiene habits

When did you last wash your bra, the one you’re wearing? For some of us, it might have been yesterday, for others, maybe last month. But then consider this: does your answer elicit a twinge of guilt? Because while we don’t particularly care about how often we wash our undergarments – or indeed ourselves – it seems that society does. In fact, it is obsessed with the matter.

Earlier this year a study into the personal hygiene of British women revealed, much to the ‘shock’ and ‘disgust’ of the nation, that most of us – four out of five women, to be exact – do not shower every day. The papers had a field day, with headlines screaming, “UK WOMEN ARE DIRTY!” Our laundry was aired to the world, and the world quite noticeably turned its nose up in distaste.

Washing daily is not uncommon in today’s society but such frequent ablutions are a relatively new phenomenon. While it’s often claimed that Queen Elizabeth I only bathed once a month (the more likely truth is that she had a regular flannel wash and certainly would have changed her undergarments every day), the lack of running water in homes did prevent people from enjoying a daily scrub as warming up buckets of water to fill a copper tub was gruelling work. Up until the Thirties, public baths were common in British towns, with working people queuing up for a weekly hot bath with a clean towel and a piece of soap for sixpence.

But since the dawn of advertising, hygiene products have been primarily targeted at women. They preyed on our shame about our bodily functions: a vintage ‘Lysol’ advert for a disinfectant douche warned about the “one intimate neglect that can engulf you in marital grief”, while an early ad for Lux soap read: “What a pity to see lovely girls losing out on husbands because they are careless about perspiration odour”. 

Even today, the very existence of vaginal deodorants, ‘intimate’ washes, wipes and sprays – a quarter of us are estimated to have used one of these in the past six months and the industry is projected to be worth £9.6billion globally by 2017 – corroborates this double standard. And let’s not even start on the suggestion, from Gwyneth Paltrow no less, that we steam-clean our vaginas. Do any of these things exist for men’s (far sweatier) nether regions? Of course not. And while we’re not saying that men don’t wash every day, they certainly aren’t expected to float around in an exotic cloud of eastern spices.

So there’s little mystery about why we feel ashamed of our natural bodily functions and odours, but perhaps it’s time to ask if it’s an outdated notion. First of all, let’s cut each other some slack; we’ve all sacrificed a hair wash to get an extra hour in bed. And who among us hasn’t once run a wet wipe under our arms before deeming ourselves ‘Ready for the day’? Secondly, being too clean is not beneficial. A study by the University of California found that too much washing strips away beneficial bugs that the body uses to help ward off infections, weakening our immune system. In fact, it has been suggested that the explosion of allergies such as asthma in recent years could be due to our stringent cleaning routines.

As the NHS website itself proclaims, good hygiene is not the same as “being dirt free and obsessively clean”. It’s time we got real about our cleanliness levels. Yes, some of us do wear the same tights four days in a row; but equally, some of us feel more alert if we wash our hair daily and more relaxed if we take a bath before bedtime twice a week. That is our prerogative. We all differ; so we asked four writers to reveal the truth about their hygiene habits 

Luisa Omielan is a comedian, stand-up and writer of tours What Would Beyoncé Do? and Am I Right, Ladies?! 

“I am always gross in the morning. I go to bed, shaved and cleaned. No matter how drunk or tired, I hate getting into bed with dried sweat on my skin. So I have a bath, but I have one of those plastic shower head things that doesn’t fit right, so it’s often a shallow bath and washing myself with the gravy jug jar. If I am feeling lazy and haven’t sweated, I will go to bed without a whole bath but you’d better believe my face and vagina will be pristine.

I usually brush my teeth, then scrub my face super clean with face wash, follow with a toner and then coconut oil the life out of it. I’m only this regimented in London, though. On holiday recently, I loved the fresh air, sea salt and sun – my skin looked so good and I’d only washed it with water. I always go to bed clean, but – I don’t know how – I always manage to wake up dirty. I’ll arise with mascara snot in the corner of my eye, dried dribble on the corner of my mouth and breath like a kebab shop. Sometimes when I’m feeling really gross, I wake up and get out of bed, and can’t even be bothered to brush my teeth before I go to the shop, and then I think, ‘That’s disgusting, what If I see someone I know?’ 

Then I think, ‘F**k it, I’ll take the risk’. Then there’s times where I wake up hungover and go to the gym without showering and hope that no-one notices the kebab-like stench coming from me. I mean it would be silly to shower (bath-jug wash) before because I am only going to bath-jug wash again after! Who am I kidding? I only spend 20 minutes in the gym, who wants two bath-jug washes in an hour?

Actually being really dirty and gross is a real treat but not a way of life. I don’t encourage it. It should be a special one-off occasion, like when you buy a ridiculous handbag once a year that’s worth a month’s wages. Not washing and being a hot mess should be something you can revel in, but not a full-time operation. If I am with a guy, I will wake up an hour before he does to bath-jug wash the life out of myself, Femfresh my fanny and Colgate my mouth before applying some natural-looking make-up, climbing back into bed and being like, ‘Oh, I woke up like this’.”   

Daisy Buchanan is a journalist and writer 

“I can put my hand on my heart and tell you that I have never had any sort of exchange in a professional setting without showering thoroughly first. This is because I work from home and can go for days without seeing anyone. Because I’m disorganised and constantly on deadline, I’m usually writing as soon as I’m awake when I should be washing. I don’t really have a morning bathroom routine, but I’ll sometimes have a 3pm shower as a ‘reward’ for filing all my copy (or because as soon as I’ve pressed ‘send’, I’m very aware of the fact that I feel unwashed, grubby and I’m wearing pyjamas stained with the morning’s cereal).

Washing my hair happens three times a week at most. I have lots of thick hair, and washing and drying it takes a good 90 minutes. I should be sponsored by Batiste. The most disgusting aspect of my hygiene is probably the way I do – or don’t do – laundry. I always wear clean knickers, but tights usually get two or three outings before they get to the washing machine, and they usually get laddered and chucked away first. I wear a different bra every day, but I haven’t washed one in a month. There’s a huge disparity between the amount of attention I pay to washing and the money I spend on things to use in the bathroom. I’m a sucker for anything that smells nice.

The bath is my favourite place to be. I do the clichéd wine and candle thing, and I’ve ruined quite a few books by dropping them in. It’s more of a lazy person’s hobby than part of a beauty routine. I think there’s a difference between cleanliness and grooming.

I like the sensation of feeling clean, and there’s a real visceral pleasure in going to bed between clean sheets when you’re wearing newly laundered pyjamas and you’ve washed your hair. Because feeling clean is something I can control, whereas with grooming, I always feel as though I’m fighting a losing battle. The female body is a battlefield – a territory that all sorts of different parties are trying to claim for profit. It’s lucrative to make me feel bad about myself so I buy something to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

And when I remember this and let myself get deliberately dirty, I feel a bit rebellious. A flash of armpit stubble seems subversively sexy, because it might scare people. I’d be willing to bet £50 that Kate Moss doesn’t wash her hair every day, either.” 

Roxane Gay is a professor, cultural commentator and author of Bad Feminist 

“More often than not, I wish I didn’t have to think about my body or its maintenance. But, for so long, I did everything I could to make my body impenetrable. To take care of my body means having to confront the damage I have done by gaining a lot of weight. I have to consider my appearance because I live in the world and I enjoy being attractive to the person I’m in a relationship with but it’s not a cheerful process. As a fat woman, I’m particularly sensitive to stereotypes of fat people as dirty, smelly, or slovenly.

I brush my teeth (Colgate) and if I am particularly motivated I use mouthwash (Listerine). I rarely floss. I know that’s terrible but I am not a morning person and by the end of the day, it’s the last thing I’m thinking about. I regularly clean my ears because ear wax is gross and I love the feeling of something firm in the tender of my ear canal. I refuse to leave my house without showering (Oil of Olay body wash), applying deodorant (Arrid Extra Dry), and perfume (currently, Narcisco Rodriguez, spritzes between my fantastic breasts, behind each ear, and on my wrists). Throughout the day I am not averse to giving myself a good sniff to make sure all my products are working well. I generally smell pretty good unless I have just worked out and then, you’ve been warned.

If I’m especially motivated I shave my legs, not because of the patriarchy but because I really enjoy my legs smooth and I also enjoy having sex with another human being. When I’m bored, I feel myself up and the silky smooth of my calves is oh so nice. I live in the middle of nowhere. I get my kicks where I can. I don’t get manicures or pedicures but I keep my fingernails trim (mostly by chewing on them) and my toenails trim by clipping my nails in the privacy of my bedroom and not, say, on the subway like some heathens. Also, I don’t live near a subway. My eyebrows are perfect.

I love my eyebrows even though I am not prone to vanity. They have a nice shape, aren’t bushy, and to pluck them would be a waste of my time. I wax and pluck my chin because, holy hell, the older I get, the more these frightful black hairs insist on appearing on my chin. I even keep a pair of tweezers in my car because, turns out, the best place to pluck is the car. There’s something about the mirror in the sun visor that reveals every horror on my face. I also deal with the hair on my upper lip. You might call it a moustache, but I am a lady. Waxing that space hurts like hell so I often just use a razor. It’s really quite sad but I refuse to be the lady with a beard. I just refuse.” 

 Bryony Gordon is a newspaper columnist and author of The Wrong Knickers 

“A confession: I wash my hair in dirty bath water. I’d like to be able to pass this habit off as concern for the environment, but actually it’s just because my husband and I can’t be bothered to get the shower fixed. In fact, lazy is probably the best word to describe my beauty regime – if I even have one in the first place. I’ll take any short cut there is, and if I don’t have to shave my legs for any special reason, I’ll leave them. My motto is: life is too short to spend it worrying about removing hair. I shave my armpits every other day, but that takes all of 20 seconds. I only ever do my bikini line (with Veet) when I am going on holiday – another motto of mine is: love me, love my bush. I think waxing is a crime against women. I own at least three expensive cleansers, but I find that nothing removes make-up quite as well as baby wipes. Which is useful in my house, as you’re never too far from a packet of Huggies.

I don’t do manicures and I paint my own toe nails, and I realise I am beginning to sound a bit grubby, but truly I’m not. I wash every day, and am so paranoid about forgetting to put deodorant on that I often apply it five times before I’ve left the house. What I’m trying to say is there are parts of a beauty regime I find important. These are the things I will not veer from, ever: flossing, daily; moisturising everything at least weekly, and exfoliating it at least once a month (though I wish I did it every fortnight). I am obsessed with face creams and eye creams, and my husband says that I go to bed looking like I’ve been embalmed.

But back to my hair, which I really must go and wash soon. It has, after all, been almost a week, but in my defence, there is a lot of dry shampoo in it. I like to think I look after it, in so much as I go to Daniel Galvin Jr once every two months to get my roots done. But I don’t own hairspray, or pomade, or straighteners, or curlers. I have one paddle brush, which I must have had for half my life. And can I confess something I’ve never told anyone before? I don’t own a hairdryer. I know, I know. I just don’t see the joy in getting up half an hour earlier to give yourself a blow dry. That extra bit of sleep is going to help me look a whole lot better than any flicked fringe ever could.  

The dirty truth: How clean are we really?

33% of women in the UK leave it three days between full-body washes. And just 21% of British women take the time to shower or bathe every day.

63% of the female population admit to not removing their make-up before bed after a night out, with 35% of those blaming a lack of time as the reason.

47% of women don’t bother washing their hands after using the toilet compared to 62% of men who head straight for the door after they’ve been to the loo.

57% of us don’t head to the sink to wash our faces before going to bed, with those women preferring to just use wet wipes to freshen up before hitting the sheets.

25% of British adults don’t brush their teeth twice a day, with one in seven of us admitting to leaving it two days between brushes and 21% saying that they forget to floss. 

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Stylist Team