Were People of the Past Terribly Stinky?
Is our idea of cleanliness and hygiene all wrong? I did the research and a personal experiment to see.
When people think about the past, particularly the so-called “middle ages” of Europe, they have a very strong picture of people who we miserable, ill-educated, and of course, filthy. Most modern people can’t imagine skipping a shower for more than a day or two without developing a socially unacceptable odor, so obviously, these people who we assume never bathed at all must have reeked like an open sewer, right?
Well, no. The way we frame history often has to do with our perception of ourselves as modern people and the assumption that we do things better than anyone who has come before. Public sanitation became a major issue as cities exploded in size in Europe in the mid-16th century, though there were still laws that dictated things like waste disposal. However, this was not the middle ages. That was when the renaissance was sweeping Europe.
Cities were smaller affairs in earlier eras and finding clean water or places to dispose of waster was easier in the agricultural communities where many people resided. Besides that, primary sources have shown that most medieval people bathed regularly. Though, probably not as regularly as modern people would consider necessary. Due to the lack of indoor plumbing, public bathhouses like our modern saunas sprang up, influenced by the middle east (which was far more technologically developed than Europe at this time).
The Trotula, a 12th-century manuscript named after the female physician who wrote a portion of it, spread from its home country of Italy to the far reaches of Europe. This guide featured all sorts of recipes for hygiene products that are comparable to modern things like dry shampoo, toner, and even a rudimentary deodorant in the form of an armpit wash. Soaking in baths made of medicinal herbs was recommended for a wide range of conditions.
Before germs and pathogens were fully understood, people of medieval Europe often equated bad smells with disease, which makes a sort of rudimentary sense when you think about sanitation. So smelling bad and having bad breath, for example, were considered very negative things related to illness. If these people recognized that bad smells were an issue and did indeed practice hygiene rituals, then perhaps they weren’t so filthy and stinking as modern depictions of the past may lead us to believe. Why then, do modern people go to such extreme measures? Why are we so stinky after skipping a shower for one or two days?
Our modern bathing rituals are largely tied to commercial products. The more people bathe, the more shampoo, conditioner, and soap they’ll use. Then, the more lotion and deodorant they’ll use. And the more money companies make. Since the mid-20th century dry skin, acne, eczema, and psoriasis have been on the rise. Some dermatologists blame this on our obsession with bathing.
By removing all of our natural oils each day with products that disrupt our skin’s acidity, we’re destroying our microbiome. Similar to how we need bacteria in our digestive tract, we need certain microorganisms on our skin to protect us from the environment and keep us in balance.
Dr. James Hamblin has written extensively about his own experiment rejecting showering. He questions society’s conflation between the ideas of constant cleanliness rituals with health and hygiene. Most of our cleanliness rituals seem to revolve around destroying our microbiome.
Alcohol and sulfates in skincare products often claim their harsh ingredients will cure things like acne by killing bacteria on your skin. However, such ingredients can often overly dry our skin and cause our body to overproduce oil to make up for it. Many people find themselves trapped in a cycle of being dry and still having constant breakouts because of this.
In my late teens and early 20s, I was stuck in this cycle. My skin was so dry it was flaking and peeling off. I couldn’t wear makeup without it looking scaly and powdery. But I was still having regular breakouts. Finally, instead of using products that were meant to clear my breakouts, I decided to focus on my dryness. Suddenly my breakouts were getting better too. Instead of punishing my skin, I was nourishing it.
For many years now, I’ve shied away from harsh products because my skin tends to be more sensitive and a few years ago I was diagnosed with eczema. Stress and weather conditions can worsen this condition. As the weather started to turn colder this year, I noticed that I was starting to get irritated. My back was itchy all the time, I was getting some breakouts along my chin and hairline, and my armpits were starting to get an eczema rash. Every time I got out of the shower I felt especially red and itchy.
So I started my own experiment. I have been cleaning up and minimizing my personal care rituals for several years now. And if anything, it’s made me look better. My hair’s less frizzy, my skin more glowing. So, working from home and going into cold weather, what if I made it even simpler?
I set a few guidelines for myself:
- I would stop wearing deodorant. Instead, every evening and every morning, I would wash my armpits with a rosewater and witch hazel blend. In the morning I would also apply a small amount of coconut oil. Coconut oil would help nourish my irritated skin, but the oil also has some antimicrobial properties, so it would help prevent bacterial build-up that can cause odor.
- Once a week I would do a full shower with goat’s milk bar soap and a sulfate-free tea tree oil shampoo. Goat’s milk has a similar pH level to your skin, so it helps balance it and maintain your natural barrier. Tea tree is anti-fungal and helps prevent things like dandruff. Immediately after the shower, I would moisturize my skin with goat’s milk lotion and add a little coconut oil to the ends of my hair.
- I would spot clean any area that needed it at the end of each day and I would take extra hygiene measures during my period. I would also comb out my hair at the beginning and end of each day to distribute the oils and I would use a small amount of dry shampoos if it looked at all greasy.
- I would not use any harsh cleansers on my face. I would use a little of my rosewater and witch hazel blend to gently remove any excess dirt, oil, or makeup (if I wore any that day) and follow up with a gentle plant oil-based moisturizer.
- I had to wear natural fibers as much as possible. In eras past, people would always wear a linen shirt (of varying lengths depending on the fashion and their gender) as the base layer against their skin. This would get changed frequently and replaced with clean underclothes between baths. Linen wicks sweat away and is incredibly breathable. I had to stick to linen, cotton, and wool as much as possible.
In a way, I would be viewing cleanliness more like a person from the past than your average modern person. But I have the benefit of modern science to help me select the most effective ingredients (though some, like goat’s milk, have been used on the skin for many centuries). Of course, I would be washing my hands regularly for the sake of good health. But I rarely leave my house during the week, so I could mainly avoid hand sanitizer, but I did use it on occasion.
So, what was my result? For the first week or two, I felt dirtier than usual. My body was used to me removing most of my natural oils so it produced extra. Soon though, I started to balance out. I would have my husband sniff test me and give me his honest opinion. After passing over that initial threshold, I was no longer smelly.
I had to be mindful, though. After working out, I would clean my armpits and reapply my coconut oil. If I got sweaty, I would change my undershirt.
And modern clothing sometimes worked against me. While I’ve been trying to remove plastic fibers from my wardrobe, a few blended items remain. Most workout gear is made of clingy spandex which can trap sweat and even increase your risk of things like yeast infections because they don’t breathe. So, obviously, such things couldn’t be part of my daily wear. The day I smelled the worst during the past few months of doing this experiment was the day I wore an acrylic blend sweater to run errands. I got hot wearing the sweater under my jacket in a busy supermarket and by the time I got home, I was a little stinky.
While everyone’s body chemistry varies — and Hamblin himself mentions that our own body chemistry can fluctuate, a change in odor could actually be a sign that we’re under too much stress, or something’s off in our diet for example — I wonder if most of us could stand to wash less. It’s our attachment to habits and our fear of social rebuke that prevent us from trying things like this. We are sometimes scarred by the memory of a sweaty phase as a teenager when surging hormones (and maybe a poor diet) changed our body and caused unpleasant odors. Perhaps that was when we started adopting stringent cleaning rituals and have been afraid to let up since.
For most people, there will be a transition period, like I experienced before you can see what your body’s base level for cleanliness is. Once you establish that base level, you can find out exactly how much your body needs to be groomed and what your skin can take care of on its own. For each person, this may vary.
It makes me realize how much of what we consider necessary for cleanliness is really just based on making companies money. It also has shown me that our idea of medieval Europeans as reeking, is also probably not accurate. While, by modern standards, they probably weren’t as “clean” and sweet-smelling as we consider appropriate, they would have a virtually intact microbiome. This would have helped keep their skin healthy and have reduced their amount of body odor as well. And maybe their theory of bad smells being a sign of disease could prove true in the case of a sudden increase or change in body odor. It was a sign that something was wrong.
I’m not sure if this will be my permanent routine, especially once it gets hot again and I’m in contact with more people more regularly. However, I no longer think of bathing as something I must do every day. Instead, I let my body find its balance and listen to its needs. It’s a matter of mindfulness rather than routine now.