On a daily basis, more and more people are becoming conscious of their plastic consumption, with this awareness originally catapulting thanks to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II which aired on BBC One in 2017.

One aspect of people’s everyday lives in modern society is keeping clean, with it being a social norm to bath or shower daily.

As a result of this, commercial hygiene products are being manufactured – and sold – in abundance, with an extremely large percentage of said products being housed in plastic bottles which when finished with are disposed of.

Almost all of these bottles end up in landfill, taking hundreds of years to break down.

History of Hygiene

Person washing hands in water

Hygiene” is a word coined from the Greek Goddess of health and daughter of Aesculapius (the god of medicine), Hygeia.

Personal hygiene through the course of time has differed greatly to what we view it as today.

Katherine Ashenburg writes in her book “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History” that today’s cleanliness has more to do with appearances than hygiene itself. She goes on to argue why people even need to shower once a day today when, compared to our ancestor’s, society is generally a lot more sedentary.

This mindset began to come to fruition in the 19th Century – amongst Europe anyhow; Asia and India for example have, according to Ashenburg, an unbroken trend of cleanliness.

Religions such as Islam and Hinduism have a long history of taking cleanliness very seriously. Christianity however, had no teaching or interest in hygiene with the belief that the holier you were, the less you wanted to be clean. It was said that the more you smelled the closer to God you were.

For many centuries across Europe, beginning in the 14th Century due to the black death (otherwise known as The Great Plague), it was believed that bathing in warm or hot water led to pores being opened with this making the individual more susceptible to catching the plague.

Another example of misconceptions towards cleanliness occurred during the 17th century: people would look at the rings around their collars and cuffs as a means to extract dirt from the body; believing the flax in the linen exerted a kind of magnetic attraction to sweat.

Move forward to today – the 21st century – and western society’s view on cleanliness has shifted dramatically. It is now the norm to bathe or shower once a day, with a whole host of hygiene products being available which offer a solution to essentially all “personal hygiene related needs”.

Lori Loeb, a professor of history at the University of Toronto states “the idea that we should bathe every day, and especially the idea that we should take a shower, is a product of the 1950s and 1960s and the affluence after World War II. Showering is very new”

The notion of “being smelly” such as with a build of body odour from sweat, is no longer celebrated or treated as normal but instead is frowned upon and stigmatised.

The Rise of Shower Gel

It has been revealed through an excavation of ancient Babylon, that Babylonians were making soap around 2800 B.C., although it is not documented what the soap was used for.

They made these soaps from a formula consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil. A recipe which was written on a Babylonian clay tablet dated around 2200 B.C.

Some of the earliest records of soap being used for personal hygiene applications date back to Ancient Egypt (1500 B.C.). Records show that Egyptians bathed regularly, combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a soap-like material used for treating skin diseases and for washing.

Soap has come under scrutiny in more recent years, as although being dispelled in multiple scientific studies, people believe soap bars to be a dated and unhygienic way to wash the hands and body.

Instead then, people shifted to gels, liquid and foam alternatives with the ascension of shower gel since the 1990’s being linked to this fear of viruses such as influenza and SARS, through belief bacteria lingered on soap for days after use; thus, shower gel gained a perception of being a cleaner and healthier alternative.

Shower gel is a specialised liquid product used to clean the body during showers (or baths) and a derivative of liquid soap which was first invented in the 1800’s. In 1865, William Shephard patented the liquid soap formula, but it eventually became massively popular with the rise of Palmolive soap in 1898, founded by B.J. Johnson.

Shower gels contribute greatly to the plastic epidemic, due to them typically being housed in plastic bottles which are used for a short period of time before being disposed of.

Another reason shower gel has contributed so greatly to the plastic epidemic is through the introduction of microbeads. Microbeads are small pieces of plastic which were added to shower gels for their exfoliating qualities.

Due to how small microbeads are (less than one millimetre in dimension), when washed down the drain, pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants, making their way into river and canals. This resulting in plastic particle water pollution.

In 2015 the United States of America passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which bans microbeads in the U.S. This started in 2017 with full implementation by 2019 and has been followed by other countries such as Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

The plastic shower gel bottle, however, is still lining the shelves of a large percentage of supermarkets and shops around the world.

Five Plastic Free Personal Hygiene Alternatives

Bar of soapFor the first time in a century sales of soap bars are up. According to Kantar Worldpanel, an international consumer panel company – sales of soap bars around the world have risen to £68.3 million in the year to September 2018, up £2 million on the year before.

Experts state the rise in the traditional soap bar has come about due to major consumer backlash against plastic waste.

People today have become a lot more concerned about plastic packaging and the effect it is having on the planet today.

The demand for plastic free alternatives to personal hygiene products stems further than shower gel alone. We have listed five alternatives below for you to begin building out a plastic free and sustainable bathroom:

• Shampoo bars
• Soap bars
• Facial bars
• Shaving bars
• Natural toothpaste

Click on the products to find out more about them (coming soon).


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