The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly History of Hygiene...and What We Can Learn From It

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly History of Hygiene...and What We Can Learn From It

by Brandon Hunt


Remember the days when people were hoarding toilet paper?


I still can’t figure out why people were more concerned about toilet paper than having enough food, which in a way triggered the idea for this post. I’ll get into more detail further on.

Then, a few weeks ago another surge of panic buying kicked off when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Now that too has dropped down as people return to their Normalcy Bias (which our very own prepping guru, Jeanette, wrote a great article about).

Seems we just go from one crisis to another. People don’t panic as much as they did before. Maybe we’re just getting used to it.

Anyway… as I was thinking about having enough supplies for an extended emergency, my mind got on the track of hygiene.

How do you stay clean if you run out of stuff like toilet paper?

That question led me to wonder how ancient cultures dealt with hygiene issues.

First off, we have to answer…

Why is hygiene important?

Hygiene is important to our daily routines, but even more so during a survival situation.

Here’s why:

  • After a disaster, disease and pathogens spread easily.
  • Facilities will likely be down.
  • Water is easily contaminated.
  • Improper disposal of human waste causes problems and spreads disease.
  • Uncleanliness in our surroundings, and upon our own bodies, are breeding grounds for bacteria.

People don’t realize that a long term disruption to society, like a war, drastically affects hygiene standards. Good hygiene is based on running water, a fact we take for granted.

When we watch movies or read history, we scoff at those dirty, ancient peoples and wonder how they could live the way they did. 

A look at the past 

Looking at the past, what people did for hygiene will help us consider how good we have it, and consider how or what hygiene needs to prepare for.

Perhaps once you read about some of the ancient hygiene practices, you’ll definitely be glad for our modern age.

Did ancient people care about hygiene?

We’re used to thinking of people in the past as being a bit backward or uneducated. Surprisingly some ancient cultures were quite diligent, even obsessive, about hygiene. 

  • The ancient Egyptians are one such culture obsessed with cleanliness. Granted, given their region, it is understandable they went to great lengths for hygiene.
  • The Egyptians were sticklers for hair removal — all of it! Men, women and children were bald. 
  • They preferred to wear fancy wigs to protect their heads from the sun, and supposedly keep them cooler. 
  • They bathed frequently and used scented water. Granted the cleanliness and hair removal did reduce problems from pests like lice.
  • The Romans too were a people who cared about hygiene, as evidenced by the elaborate bath houses they created.
  • Although, the Roman public toilets were…shall we say, a place best avoided. We’ll get into that later.

Yeah, people did care about cleanliness to one degree or another, it mostly depended upon cultural attitudes and the nearness of clean water.

What did people use before toilet paper?

Toilet paper is more of Western thing. Even today you will find many other countries think we’re weird for using TP. They prefer bidets and other methods.

But back in the day…

  • The Romans had communal bathrooms. In those public bathrooms was a stick. On that stick was a sponge…used for cleaning the backside. Butt…the sponge-stick was a shared communal tool. Talk about having a stick up the butt.
  • Ancient China preferred bamboo sticks with a cloth wrapped around the end.
  • In Scandinavia old wool was used.
  • Other cleaning options in various places consisted of dried grass, straw, sand, sticks, flat stones or seashells.

At least you’ll be glad to know that most people believed it was good practice to wash their hands.

Did people groom? 

Again this comes down to a cultural thing. 

  • For Roman men being clean shaven was a status symbol, as beards were worn by the barbarians.
  • Strangely, even though Egyptians obsessed over hair removal, some of the men considered beards a sign of masculinity. At times they would sometimes wear a fake beard strapped to the chin.
  • In many areas grooming was a way to deal with lice and other pests.
  • Short answer: Yes, many ancient people had grooming routines, to one degree or another.

As the years and methods progressed, so did grooming standards.

Did people have soap long ago?

Surprisingly many ancient cultures had some form of soap, made from varying ingredients. Ancient Babylon is one of the earliest cultures in which soap recipes existed. 

Ingredients such as tallow, ashes, and lye were the most common soap ingredients, and they are still used today.

How did people wash hair before shampoo?

Again there were varying methods and thoughts regarding hair care. 

  • As mentioned earlier the Egyptians shaved their heads to avoid lice, but wore wigs — which they did wash with citrus juice.
  • The Credela plant was used in ancient China. It has a fragrant aroma and was used to wash hair.
  • The Greeks and Romans shined up their hair with olive oil. A vinegar rinse cleansed and lightened their hair.
  • In other times people used lye to wash hair, and then conditioned it with bacon fat or licorice. I can only imagine the smell.

So we know that people did try to keep their hair clean. However some of the ingredients or practices are questionable.

Looking at today and beyond

So now that we’ve looked at the past for examples of hygiene, it’s time to think about how you can prepare for a possible loss of sanitation products in the future.

Remember that hygiene is a necessary part of emergency preparation as well. You need to make plans for staying clean and how to dispose of human waste. It’s best to think ahead and avoid hygiene casualties.

What to do for soap prepping?

  • Storing and stocking up on commercial soap is one way to ensure you have a way to clean yourself. 
  • You also may want to buy dish soap and laundry soap. Yep. Even if everything collapses, there’s still laundry to do — the laundry never ends.
  • Another level of preparing includes becoming familiar with homemade soap recipes and processes. 
  • Keep ingredients on hand to make your own soap.
  • Some natural methods do include ingredients like ash in the soap making process. It’s a matter of getting familiar with do-it-yourself methods.

What can you do to keep your hair clean without shampoo?

  • Items like vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and baking soda are good alternatives for hair cleansing. And they are items you should store anyways as they have many uses.
  • Even a straight water rinse removes dirt and debris, though eventually you would want to use a cleanser and conditioner to avoid dandruff and such.
  • Some people talk about cleansing recipes like coconut milk, green tea, rice water, and hibiscus. 

What alternatives to toilet paper can you use?

What if the worst happens and you don’t have enough toilet paper? Well, first off I would say this is why people should prepp. If you store enough supplies you’ll be okay. 

  • Sure toilet paper is good, but also stock up on boxes of baby wipes. 
  • Other options include reusable cloths (which require washing and sanitation), water bottle, compressed toilet paper coins, and cloth pads. 
  • And if you run out of good commercial products, why then, you’ll have to resort to products you find in nature.

Plus, these days you can find products like Ecogel, the potty box, or portable toilets. Our modern society does give us better methods for dealing with sanitation during emergencies. 

So research, plan, and stock up on sanitation supplies now.

What to do when you’ve got to go #2?

It’s dirty business but we do need to mention what to do with the poo. 

The best way to do that is to plan and prepare beforehand. Really. Planning ahead is the best option there is. You don’t want to be making it up as you go…

Fortunately, we have developed effective products to keep the #2 process sanitary and clean. We have products like EcoGel, the Potty Box, the Honey Bucket and Seat, and biohazard bags, all so that you can effectively and sanitarily deal with waste. 

For example, EcoGel is an absorbent powder that kinds liquids into a gel, reducing any mess and removing the hassle of disposal. All of the products work together to keep your environment clean.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping living areas sanitary. 

What can we learn from people in the past?

Studying the past helps us avoid the mistakes of others. From history we can find ways to do something better, or even rediscover effective methods we have forgotten. Whatever reason it may be, history is our opportunity to learn.

But we (I mean people in general) have an appalling habit of disregarding warnings and examples from the past.

So what can we learn from ancient peoples methods of cleanliness? 

  • For one thing, a whole lot of people die from unsanitary conditions.
  • We can learn what not to do, such as toilet sponge sticks for the butt.
  • Some of them actually used effective natural ingredients for cleaning the body, hair, and creating soaps.
  • No matter the situation hygiene is always important.

Don’t be like most people and wait for something to happen and then decide it would be a good time to prepare. 

I realize that inflation is here, that the dollar doesn’t go as far as it once did, that gas prices are high, and food is more costly — but think of your preparation efforts as investing in your ability to survive. If things continue to go the way they are, you may have to rely on food storage.

Ultimately you are the only one responsible for your preparation efforts. Take action now and get ready…and good luck in your efforts.

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