Tryphine, a 26-year-old student, who was forced to make sacrifices which were damaging for her mental and physical health. Image: Supplied
Tryphine felt isolated when she could not afford to keep herself clean. She worried about how she smelled and looked, but shame meant that she kept it to herself. Tryphine felt alone – but she is one of millions of people who have experienced hygiene poverty for the first time in the cost of living crisis.
“You go through stages,” the 26-year-old says. “You feel a tiny bit of shame as you start to realise it more yourself but you’re not ready to speak about it. But I think there was a point where shame went out the window. There was no time.
“There was no way I could just keep it to myself and let it grow into something else. I hate letting things fester. I started seeing myself unravelling and isolating myself, even when I didn’t need to be isolated.”
A shocking 4.2 million people have experienced hygiene poverty for the first time this year, according to recent research from charity In Kind Direct and YouGov. That’s more people than the entire population of Croatia, unable to clean themselves properly because they cannot afford it in the cost of living crisis. Over half of these people (59%) are in work.
“Hygiene poverty exists a lot closer than people may think,” Rosanne Gray, the chief executive of In Kind Direct, said. “It could be a colleague at work, the bus driver or a friend. It’s so important that we work together to raise awareness and break down the stigma associated, so people feel comfortable asking for and providing support.”
Hygiene poverty has a detrimental impact on people’s mental health, according to In Kind Direct. Almost one in four (24%) of those living in hygiene poverty avoid socialising with their friends and family, and nearly one in five (19%) feel too embarrassed or ashamed to leave the house. This is something that Tryphine felt deeply.
“It had a massive impact on my confidence,” she says. “I could only cover the big bills like making sure that I’m fed and making sure that my rent is paid. I just felt so out of place, and I definitely felt anxiety.”
There were days when she could only manage to put on body spray, because it is more affordable, but it doesn’t last long. By midday, she started to worry about aromas and she would refuse invitations to socialise because she would feel it was better if she went home.
Tryphine’s lowest point came this year. The pandemic had given her some relief while she was studying at university with mask-wearing and fewer in-person lectures. But she had to go into university every day this year, and the cost quickly added up.
“It became even more expensive,” she says. “I had to make more sacrifices. My lowest point really was when everything was back to normal but it wasn’t back to normal because everything was so much more expensive. And now I am having to face these challenges head on, or else I’m really sabotaging myself with my education and my social life.”
On the frontline of the cost of living crisis, charity workers are seeing people increasingly struggle to pay for hygiene products. Simon Lellow, who works for Telford Crisis Support which is part of In Kind Direct’s network of foodbanks, says: “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a massive uplift.
“Around 85% of our food referrals made a request for hygiene products – commonly shower gel, toilet roll, shampoo, period products, deodorants, toothpaste. We’ve found an increase in people asking us for washing up liquid and cleaning sprays, and worryingly washing powder.
“People haven’t got the ability to wash their clothes day to day because the cost of those products is such a big part of their budget. It’s become a greater issue. It has always been there. But it’s certainly a larger issue now than it used to be.”
Tryphine was forced to give up quality products at first – like deodorant that lasts and the best sanitary towels. She could not afford the skin care routines that her friends were doing and she felt left behind. It grew worse as the cost of living crisis took hold of the country and Tryphine had to make an increasing number of sacrifices. There were times where she gave up proper meals because she prioritised her hygiene.
“People can be isolated because they are unable to wash their clothes or they’re unable to put on deodorant,” Lellow says. “People feel just really low in themselves. They are looking at themselves in the mirror and they don’t feel as if they’re as clean as society expects them to be. It is particularly difficult if you work or you’re trying to get a job or you’re at school.
“The peer pressure is very tough and it’s bad for self-esteem. People are embarrassed to ask for things like that. It’s a step to ask for food, but when people have to ask for things that we should all expect to be able to afford, it’s really troubling.”
Food banks and charities are providing a lifeline to people who are experiencing hygiene poverty. Tryphine was referred to the charity Adira, which supports Black people with mental health issues, and it helped her rebuild her confidence with access to therapy and a self-care hub. They work with In Kind Direct to provide not just the essentials but quality products.
This includes Black hair products, which come at a greater cost but it was so important for Tryphine. “Let’s say I have to take out my braids, I can stay natural because I have good Black hair products, which are way more expensive, so I can now like to have my natural hair out, and it’s actually not breaking apart.
“I can get in the shower and I’m not worried about how I’m going to smell a few hours down the line. It really made me feel confident. I could sleep at night because I wasn’t worried about what was going to happen the next day.”
Tryphine was also empowered to talk about her experiences, both with professionals and other people struggling to afford hygiene products. She believes we need to talk openly about hygiene poverty so that others feel less isolated and ashamed in asking for help.
That’s why she is so supportive of In Kind Direct’s campaign, Not a Choice, which is on a mission to reduce the stigma around hygiene poverty and encourage conversations in safe spaces, so more people feel comfortable both asking for and providing support.
“The conversations need to be had,” Tryphine says. “There are a lot of statistics out there that are shocking, but I think there are definitely more people who are suffering. Raising awareness is a massive thing but we also need real education.
“When you face those kinds of struggles, you are sometimes willing to make questionable decisions, especially if you’re not educated about it,” Tryphine says. “It can be dangerous and unhealthy. I’m glad that I was found when I was, but what about for some people that have not been found? They’ve not been able to speak about it and are probably doing a lot of things that may cause health risks.”
Tryphine is now in her final year of university and is doing much better. “I am now facing a lot of decisions about what I’m going to do with my career, but I feel confident. I’ve been given the opportunity to not worry about the small things and make sure that I do well. If I have a job interview, I’m not going to be worried about looking presentable. Even though it seems very shallow to think about, it isn’t. It plays in your mind. I think for now I’m just happy. I’m a lot happier than I was.”
To donate to In Kind Direct’s campaign, visit the Just Giving fundraiser or text CHOICE to 70460 to donate £10.