Care of the body is increasingly a focus of interest, as the rapid growth in the popularity of saunas and fitness centres demonstrates so clearly.
This is not actually a new phenomenon, because people have been using cosmetics for many centuries in order to improve their appearance. It was already fashionable to paint the face in ancient Rome. A difference between then and now, however, is that it was then done equally by men and women, and also that it often served to cover the signs of ill-health rather than promote good health.
Good personal hygiene is taken as a matter of course nowadays. A person who does not wash regularly soon comes to be regarded as dirty.
The importance of hygiene became apparent in the last century, when it was discovered that many diseases were caused by microscopic pathogens. It also became clear that infectious diseases could be prevented by making the conditions in which they might grow as unfavourable to them as possible.
Although it is true up to a point that a clean body is better protected against bacteria and fungi, some people nowadays go to extremes in trying to prevent a trace of body odours. This is carried so far in some cases that the body’s natural resistance is actually reduced by the use of various ‘personal-hygiene1 products.
No set of rules and regulations about personal hygiene would apply equally to all people. You are unique, with your own type of skin and hair; your way of life may expose you to particular dirt, dust, bacteria, other disease-causing organisms, industrial pollutants or other toxic products. All these factors may effect your personal hygiene needs. Whatever your circumstances, you cannot avoid the millions of potentially harmful bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the environment and the surface of your body. Ignoring personal hygiene is the surest way to help these tiny organisms gain a foothold in your body and foster infection. It is silly, however, to be overanxious about the possibility of infection or obsessionalabout washing, or you could do yourself as much harm as not washing does to the person who is slightly ‘dirty’. The purpose of personal hygiene is prevention of infection and of body odour. You must keep clean to achieve these aims, but how you cut your nails, the fit of your shoes, how often you change your clothes and what material they are made of also contribute towards personal hygiene and to a healthy life. Some people must also consider their allergic reactions – when the body’s equilibrium is upset by normally harmless substances; people with allergies can often identify and avoid the soaps, cosmetics, fabrics or other substances that cause problem.
A healthy skin is important for preventing infection. Whatever cleansing method you adopt, do not in the process remove the natural protective sebum by using too much soap, or the wrong kind. Soap is one of the most effective cleansing agents known. It enables you to remove all extraneous dirt as well as substances produced by your body, such as dried sweat, natural grease and dead skin cells. If you use soap excessively, however, or have a dry skin, you may wash away too many of your natural oils and disturb your skin’s acid balance, leaving it more liable to infection. For delicate skin, particularly on your face, you can use a cleansing lotion or mild soap, such as baby soap, or one formulated to have the same acidity as your skin. Some people have an allergic reaction to perfumed soaps.
Contact dermatitis is a skin complaint usually caused by an allergic reaction to an irritant substance (an allergen). Symptoms may resemble those of eczema or hives, with red itching patches and inflammation of the skin. Allergens are legion and very widely from person to person. They include rubber (in rubber gloves, for example), synthetic fabrics such as nylon, metals (such as nickel on watch straps or on the buckle of a bra) and various chemicals from deodorants to detergents. Skin allergies may be treated in the short term with antihistamine lotions or, in severe cases, ointments containing corticosteroid drugs.
Long-term treatment involves a desensitization pro-gramme or avoidence of the allergen, once it has been identified by means of a series of tests.
Washing, baths and showers
Daily washing is essential for health and for the sake of those around you. Pay particular attention to places where two skin surfaces lie in contact, for example between the toes, around the genitals, under the armpits and in the groin, which have the most sweat glands.
Dry yourself thoroughly, especially in these parts; germs thrive on moisture. Some people use talcum powder, or perhaps an anti-perspirant under the armpits.
You should wash your hands more frequently than any other part of your body. They constantly come into contact with dirt, germs and chemicals, some of which can irritate the skin or cause allergic reaction. Excessive scrubbing with soap or disinfectants can, however, seriously damage the skin of your hands. If your hands are exposed to frequent abuse, wear protective gloves, or apply a barrier cream. Wash your clothes regularly to remove accumulated sweat and dirt; you should change your underwear and socks, tights or stockings every day. A hot bath at night, besides effectively washing your body, can be soothing, but the water should not be too hot. Very hot water can raise your body temperature dangerously.
It also tends to open up your skin pores; if you soak for too long, especially in soapy water, your skin can become unhealthily dry. Many people find a cold or warm bath invigorating.
A shower has advantages over a bath: you are unlikely to dry out your skin; it quickly washes away germs and dirt without contaminating the rest of your body; and showers take less time than baths, and use less water – which can save on heating bills.
Sweating: anti-perspirants and deodorants
The unpleasant smell of body odour is caused by the presence of fatty acids in the sweat and the decom-position of sweat by bacteria living on the skin. Shaving under the arms can help reduce the problem, as can regular use of an anti-perspirant. If you use anti-perspirant, however, remember that some of these agents may stain clothes; others may irritate the skin or even produce an allergic rash. Excessive use of anti-perspirants is unhealthy because perspiration is one of the essential functions of your body – blocking this activity for too long can be harmful. Deodorants are similar to anti-perspirants but their main action is to mask the smell of the sweat. Apart from containing various perfumes, deodorant preparations sometimes include active pharmaceutical agents such as antibiotics or antiseptics, which can cause allergic skin reactions.
Foot-care and shoes
Your feet are the part of your body farthest away from your heart; the blood supplying them is relatively sluggish, because the blood flow from the feet to the heart usually has to overcome gravity. For this reason your feet are the least well nourished part of your body and, as a result, infections and injuries take longer to heal there than elsewhere. Athlete’s foot, or tinea, is an annoying and persistent condition that can affect the feet. It is caused by a fungus that thrives in the moisture between the toes, giving rise to small cracks in the skin or blisters which are susceptible to secondary bacterial infection if they are scratched and broken.
You can help the healing of a foot injury by raising the foot level with your heart whenever you sit or lie down. This helps the blood flow supplying your feet to reach the extremities and speeds up the healing pro-cess. If you are diabetic, you are particularly at risk of infection. You need to be especially careful about foot hygiene. Particular attention should be given to drying the skinfolds between the toes. Even the smallest wound on the foot has to be treated with utmost care. Perspiring feet are a common problem – offensive to others and ideal conditions for infection. For relief, bathe your feet in alternate baths of hot and cold water. This stimulates the circulation and soothes tired feet.
Tight or ill-fitting shoes can seriously harm your feet. If you wear shoes that cramp the feet or have incor-rect support they may produce blisters, bunions, corns, calluses, hammer-toes and ingrowing toenails; they may also contribute to infection. Among women’s shoe styles, very high heels cause the toes to be crammed into the front of the shoe; platform shoes can cause foot and ankle injuries; and some fashionable boots are so tight around the calf that they can severely restrict blood circulation to the foot. If you have corns or pain in one or both feet, regular visits to a chiropodist for a pedicure may be helpful.
Care of nails
Your nails need little attention other than cleaning and cutting. Neglected nails are unattractive and unhygenic; dirty nails can encourage the growth of bacteria, especially in food handlers or cooks. When you clean your nails, do not dig under them; this can drive dirt farther down and set up an infection. The best way to clean dirty nails is by pressing your finger-tips into a sponge impregnated with soap solution. Incorrect cutting of nails can sometimes encourage infection, so it is best to stick to a few basic rules. Cutting fingernails: . cut your nails after washing, when they are soft, . use a pair of short-bladed scissors rather than nail-clippers, which do not gave a good shape, . cut the nails rounded and short, especially children’s nails.
Cutting toenails: . cut your toenails after a bath or shower, when they are soft, . cut straight across, . never cut the edges downwards at the sides, because this encourages ingrowing toenails, . do not cut them too short, as this may damage the skin, . use an emery board or nail-file for filing the nails; file from the sides towards the centre.
The ears have an efficient self-cleansing mechanism, so the amount of cleansing you need carry out is limited. Poking fingers, hairpins or pencils into the ear canals can be dangerous, because it is easy to perforate the eardrum. Gentle washing with a warm facecloth should be sufficient to remove any dirt from the external ear passage. If you think your ears may be blocked with ear wax (cerumen), consult your doctor, who will probably syringe them.
Sexual organs and anal region
You should clean the external genitalia and anal area daily, using mild soap and water. Uncircumcised men can prevent the accumulation of smegma by regularly washing the penis, particularly under the fore-skin. If this secretion is not removed regularly it can lead to inflammation and an offensive discharge from the penis. Statistically, a woman whose husband is circumcised runs less risk of developing cervical cancer. This decrease is thought at least in part to be the result of an absence of smegma. For women, daily cleansing with water is normally sufficient. Vaginal deodorant and antiseptic sprays and suppositories are unnecessary and can be harmful. Such chemicals can cause an allergic reaction, and can also change the protective bacteria that inhabit the vagina and contribute to its self-cleansing mechanism. Overvigorous cleansing with soap may also remove the acids which these bacteria produce and so affect the normal vaginal discharge; both are essential for health of the vagina. Douching, which involves squirting water into the vagina through a tube attached to a rubber bulb, is useful only for medical purposes. A daily shower is the best way to wash the anal and vaginal area. You run less risk of infecting the vulva and vagina with organisms arising in the bowel if, after a bowel action, you clean the anal area from the front backwards. In this way microorganisms are prevented from penetrating the urethra and so causing a bladder infection. To cleanse the area, just use water, which you should apply with a sponge, after the initial use of toilet paper.
Some specialists tell you frequent shampooing damages your hair by drying it out and loosening the hairs from their follicles through too frequent wetting. Others claim you should wash your hair every day just as you wash your face, to remove all harmful dirt and bacteria that accumulate on the scalp. The variety of opinions can be bewildering. Whatever you decide, you alone know what management suits your hair best and results in the most healthy appearance. Healthy-looking hair is a sign you are doing the right thing. Dandruff is unpleasant but generally harmless; it affects some people more than others. The dead cells on the scalp collect on the surface of the hair and fall conspicuously on to the shoulders.