Millions of people in the UK are facing hygiene poverty. Image: Unsplash
After the sudden death of her husband, Elaine became a single mother and lost her main income overnight. She relies on universal credit, charity donations and food banks to survive.
She dilutes hygiene products — soap, shower gel, shampoo — with water and goes weeks without washing her hair. In moments of desperation, she has begged food bank workers for body wash for her daughters and she has briefly considered shoplifting.
Elaine is one of nearly 3.2 million people facing hygiene poverty in the UK, according to new research from charity the Hygiene Bank and YouGov. It has a deep impact on people’s mental health, stopping them from showing up at work, and almost half of people affected are too embarrassed to ask for help.
“There’s an element of pride and ego,” Elaine told the charity. “I don’t want people’s pity or sympathy, and I don’t want the whispers of: ‘Did you know they’re struggling?’. It becomes a tragic tale, but it’s my life.”
Elaine ties up her hair to hide grease, keeps away from people out of fear she smells, has bouts of acne from being unable to wash her face and is frequently ill because of poor nutrition. She cannot sleep at night, worried her children will be taken from her. She avoids friends and family because she doesn’t want them to see how bad things are now, and she is becoming increasingly isolated.
But Elaine is far from alone. “Hygiene Poverty is the hidden crisis facing the UK. It is the new lockdown,” the Hygiene Bank’s CEO, Ruth Brock, says.
People reported buying cheap and low-quality products because that’s all they could afford, leading to matted hair, rashes and toothache. Some used the same bar of soap for everything, grew a beard so they didn’t have to buy razors, went without new clothes for years and only showered when they left the house.
“Hygiene products are really important as otherwise you feel uncomfortable,” one person says. “You feel unclean and disgusting, so it is a toss-up between shall we get toothpaste or have the heating on for a few minutes?”
Of the millions of people experiencing hygiene poverty, nearly half have gone without razors or shaving products over the last year. Around two-fifths have given up laundry detergent, household cleaning products and deodorant. A quarter have sacrificed toilet paper or soap. And nearly a third of women have gone without period products.
One woman says she wore a sanitary towel far longer than she usually would, and when she was at home she stuffed toilet paper down her underwear to soak up the bleeding. Another woman does the same – now that her daughter has started her period, she cannot afford to pay for sanitary products for both of them.
The impact of the cost of living crisis has been well documented. Prices are soaring due to a mixture of international and domestic pressures and the choices for those at the sharp end are most often presented as a choice between eating and heating. As it turns out, many people can’t afford to wash either. They are prioritising bills and food for their survival and have no money left for their hygiene.
“You have to be tight with everything,” one respondent to the survey said. “Shampoo and conditioner always seem to be so expensive. Children’s products and nappies cost an absolute fortune. Hygiene products do not get prioritised. Hot water will be more prioritised over hygiene products, but the only product I would prioritise are nappies.”
Three in five of those experiencing hygiene poverty with dependent children say that in the last 12 months they have had to choose between buying hygiene products for themselves or their children. And it is having a negative impact on children’s mental health – they face low confidence, question why they cannot invite their friends over, and their school performance takes a hit.
Hygiene poverty has a detrimental impact on adults’ mental health too, with three in five struggling as a result. Feelings of shame, anxiety and depression were most commonly felt by low-income households and disabled people.
A fifth (21 per cent) of people with a serious disability or long-term health condition have experienced hygiene poverty, compared with 8 percent of those with a less impactful disability, and just 3 per cent of people with no disability.
“I feel down on myself. I feel like a failure,” one person said. “It’s embarrassing to ring up a food bank. There are people who are worse off than me, who might need it more.”. Many stopped seeing friends and family, turning down social invitations because they were ashamed.
It’s also affecting people’s work life. One in nine said they had not gone into work or hadn’t turned up to a job interview because of hygiene issues. And nearly one in 10 have avoided going to school, college or university over the past 12 months as a result.
“I feel really depressed. I feel worthless. I can’t prepare for a job. I don’t think I will ever be able to get out, or have the confidence to get back to normal life,” one respondent said.
People report trouble sleeping, bleeding gums, tooth decay, rashes and dandruff – all of which affect their self-esteem and mental health. “I used to go out and see my friends, but I got anxiety about the way I looked and smelt, so I became a recluse,” one person commented. “I was so upset that my life had changed.”
People from an ethnic minority background are almost twice as likely to experience hygiene poverty than those from a white background (11 per cent versus 6 per cent). This correlates with the disproportionate impact the cost of living crisis is having on ethnic minority communities.
Tahir, a refugee who is surviving on universal credit, says: “It’s a traumatic experience, living on these benefits with no support, without basic hygiene you can’t take care of yourself properly.”
Currently, his hygiene products are from a charity. He gets toilet roll, razors and soap which he uses for everything, including to wash his hair. This feels “demoralising” and he fears he “doesn’t have anything to offer anyone”. The only reprieve is that he doesn’t have children to support.
It’s a similar experience for Jack, who can only afford to shower and brush his teeth every other day. He has few clothes without holes in them. He has isolated himself and fears he has alienated those close to him. His physical fitness has declined and he has put on weight, which has had a knock-on effect on his self-esteem.
“People don’t understand my lifestyle and how little I do, so they think I’m boring,” he says. “I’m just a guy that lives on his own and doesn’t do very much.”
Jack feels “collective action is required from both local and national governments”, and he particularly fears for families and children in light of price rises and the necessity for items to stretch further.
Elaine agrees, saying “unilateral change is required to tackle hygiene poverty”. She believes people should have open and honest discussions and reduce stigma towards benefit recipients. She also says that, due to the increased cost of living, benefits need to be increased so that low-income people have a fair chance of survival.
The Hygiene Bank is calling for urgent action from both the government and wider society. At the very least, the charity wants increased awareness. Brock, the charity’s CEO, says: “Hygiene poverty is a hidden crisis, and those who experience it may not want to speak out because of the shame and stigma. We need to bring the issue out into the open through open and honest conversations. We need to listen to those with lived experience.”
There are currently 537 organisations on a waiting list for the Hygiene Bank’s support – the charity provides hygiene products to schools, food banks, refuges and a host of community support groups. More donations and volunteers are needed urgently to provide hygiene essentials to those going without.
“We are building a coalition to solve the problem for good,” Brock says. “We are calling on policy makers, companies and charities to get around the table with us and those with lived experience to work out how to end hygiene poverty – because everyone deserves to feel clean.”