Hygiene Poverty: How It Feels When You Can't Afford Basic Toiletries

Photographed by Ruby Woodhouse
Period poverty is finally being taken seriously by the British government – in the last month alone, it announced a move to provide free sanitary products in English secondary and primary schools. It is a huge step that will be life-changing for women and girls, and is in large part thanks to persistent lobbying from devoted charities and campaigners, who have shone a light on the issue over many years. But a lack of period products isn't the only plight gripping women across the country.
Hygiene poverty – an inability to afford essentials such as deodorant, shampoo and other personal care products – is another "hidden crisis" in the UK that urgently needs addressing, according to the charity In Kind Direct, which estimates that thousands of people across the country are suffering in silence. Nearly four in 10 (37%) of 1,000 people surveyed by the charity in 2017 – and 56% of 18-24-year-olds – said they'd gone without hygiene or grooming products, or been forced to cut down on them, for financial reasons.
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Not being able to shower or brush your teeth isn't something that most people will readily admit to outside the context of, say, a festival or big night out, so it's impossible to know how many people are truly affected by the issue. But with 14.2 million people in the UK now living in poverty, according to a report by the Social Metrics Commission last year, awareness of the problem is growing slowly but surely, and charities have been established to provide solace to those in need.
Founded last August, The Hygiene Bank has already distributed around 16 tonnes of hygiene products, amounting to roughly £210,000 in retail value, in over 160 locations across the UK. Its mantra is simple: being clean shouldn't be a privilege. Founder Lizzy Hall was so moved by a scene in Ken Loach's Bafta-winning film I, Daniel Blake, that she decided to take action. "It was the scene where Katie, a single mother of two, is caught shoplifting and in her bag they find a pack of sanitary pads, a pack of Bic razors and a bottle of deodorant – things she needed but weren’t available at the food bank."

We know of young mums who scrape out the contents of their babies’ nappies before reapplying them.

Lizzy Hall, founder of The Hygiene Bank
Hall had donated to food banks previously, but it had never occurred to her to give anything other than food. "That these everyday bathroom essentials are out-of-reach luxuries for people who are financially struggling, stuck with me," Hall says. A few days later she visited her local food bank, which confirmed the gravity of the situation.
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"We know of whole families washing their hair, their bodies, their faces and clothes with the same cheap washing-up liquid used to do the dishes. We know of young mums who scrape out the contents of their babies' nappies before reapplying them. This leads to terrible nappy rash," Hall explains, adding that low wages, high housing costs, cuts in benefits, illness and bereavement should not leave people struggling to keep themselves clean in a civilised society.
"We know of girls bullied at school because they have greasy hair and smell, because shampoo and deodorant would have meant missing a meal. The first time I delivered toothbrushes to a food bank, a young mum turned to her children to say 'You can have a toothbrush each now,' and the kids reacted as though it was Christmas."
With its recently launched #ItsInTheBag kickstarter campaign, the charity aimed to raise £8,000 in 60 days to put towards ending hygiene poverty. Backers will each receive a branded duffel bag to help them collect new, unused and in-date hygiene, beauty, grooming and personal care products, which can then be taken to one of the charity's drop-off points to be distributed locally. The campaign has already raised over £8,200 from 250 supporters, with just over a fortnight to go, suggesting that with much less media coverage than period poverty has hitherto received, the issue could be on its way towards being eradicated for good.
Other initiatives, like Beauty Banks, founded in 2018 by the journalist Sali Hughes and the beauty director at PR firm Communications Store, Jo Jones, also allow supporters to do their bit by buying new products online to donate. Like The Hygiene Bank, it also accepts surplus unopened toiletries, such as hotel freebies and unwanted gifts.
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In a world where we are judged on our appearance, how we look impacts not only how others see us but how we judge ourselves, Hall says. "Basic hygiene goes to the core of self-worth, self-respect, confidence and dignity. With hygiene poverty comes isolation, exclusion and shame and these impact our ability to participate in society and therefore what it means to be human."
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Tara*, a 32-year-old mother of two in Kent, knows the shame and stigma that comes with not being able to afford the basic toiletries that most people take for granted. Now a part-time volunteer for The Hygiene Bank, she says her firsthand experience informs her work.
My life is settled now but it hasn't always been this way, I remember what it was like to struggle. When I was 17, I was living at home and attending college; I was pretty confident, outgoing and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. That all changed when I was raped and became pregnant. I was broken, scared and didn’t know what to do.
I only told a few people what had happened – most people, including family, didn't know. When they found out I was pregnant, I had to move out of the family home. I was classed as homeless and the council sent me to live in a B&B in Maidstone. I found myself with only a bag of belongings in a place I didn’t know and with no money. I was forced to leave my job and college as I could no longer afford to travel there and back every day or do the hours needed. Accessing benefits took a while, and even then I barely had enough money to eat, let alone get ready for a baby. I had to decide whether to buy food or shampoo and sanitary products.
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Even toothpaste and a new toothbrush seemed like an extravagant expense.

Tara*, 32
When my daughter was six months old, everything I had been through caused me to have a breakdown and I took an overdose. I then had counselling and was honest with my friends and family. I eventually got a flat, went back to college and secured funding for childcare, but I still survived on benefits. When my mum visited, she would bring toiletries and food.
My daughter was my priority so I had to buy nappies and barrier cream over things like deodorant and sanitary products. Even toothpaste and a new toothbrush seemed like an extravagant expense. I was lucky, my family would buy these things for me because I didn’t have the money. But it was humiliating, I was looking after a baby and couldn't look after myself. Even though I was back at college and feeling more positive, not being able to present myself how I wanted to really lowered my self-confidence and self-worth.
I don't think people discuss hygiene poverty because it’s shaming. I certainly wasn't telling people. My mum was sensitive enough to understand and she'd give me care packages. Not everyone has that, so what The Hygiene Bank is doing is so important to help restore some of people's dignity. Life is hard enough without the added knock hygiene poverty has to your confidence. It's something many people are just not aware of because it’s hard to admit. Unless people have experienced it or been told about it, it’s just not at the forefront of their minds.
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You don’t think you will ever be in a situation where you will need benefits or where you will have no money or support. But life can change overnight and if you have the support there it can make all the difference. That’s why I help. I help because I can, I help because it’s the right thing to do and simple things like shampoo or deodorant can really change people’s lives.
*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee's identity.
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