Hygiene: Staying Clean in a Dirty World
I feel like I’ll never be truly clean again. I mean, we do what we can for staying clean every day, but we all miss having a nice, hot shower or bath. Having someone dump a bucket of cold rainwater over your head just isn’t the same. Plus, since indoor plumbing is now a thing of the past, none of us are relishing the thought of trying to bathe outside once the snow starts to fly.
We’ve been doing a lot of sponge baths, of course, out of necessity. Even after washing up, though, you still feel dirty.
There’s no real polite way to say this—we all stink. What’s interesting is the body odors aren’t entirely unpleasant, actually. Everyone has sort of a unique scent, some stronger than others. Teenagers in particular; you can smell some of them coming a mile away. You’d think that after these last few months, the house would smell like a locker room. On hot days, it does get a bit ripe. But I am surprised at how little it bothers us. I guess we’re just used to it.
Toothpaste is becoming a rather hot commodity in the neighborhood. Most of us have enough toothbrushes, at least for the time being, but toothpaste is running out in many homes. Between this and the body odor issues, many people tend to have their conversations at something of a distance.
There is some good news, though: We were checking for odds and ends in Uncle Jay’s RV, which he’d parked here a few months before The Event. I don’t see it as looting but rather rent for the storage space, ha ha. Anyway, we didn’t find any food but did come across four whole rolls of toilet paper! Since there are four of us, we decided we’d each get one roll. That way, no one can be accused of using more than their fair share of this “jackpot.”
I don’t know which is sadder—that finding a few rolls of butt wipe made us feel like we’d won the lottery or that we actually raced each other to the latrine so we could partake in such luxury…
It is said that cleanliness is next to godliness. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is surely related to healthiness. While the absence of running water, not to mention the lack of a working water heater, can make washing up difficult, it is not impossible to keep reasonably clean in the wake of a collapse.
Off Grid Toilet Facilities
In a short-term emergency, toilets will still flush without running water. All you need to do is fill the tank with rainwater, and you’re good to go (no pun intended). However, in a long-term situation, sewer lines are going to back up and the waste will have nowhere to go. Therefore, you need to plan ahead.
Chemical toilets, found in just about any camping store, will work, but they do require a stockpile of the chemicals they use to treat the waste. You may be better off with one of the following DIY solutions.
A five-gallon bucket can be fitted with a toilet seat. In fact, you can even buy seats that are specially made for this exact purpose. Fill the bucket with a few inches of sand. Keep another bucket of sand nearby, with a scoop in it. After doing your business, you scoop a bit of sand over the waste, maybe sprinkling some baking soda or powder laundry detergent in as well to help with odors. Once the bucket gets about half-full, you’ll need to empty it before it gets too heavy to move easily.
A similar approach is to do away with the sand and just use heavy-duty garbage bags. Be sure to replace them while the bag is still easy to move. It would be considerably unpleasant to be lugging a giant bag of waste and have it break open.
Another solution, albeit involving a bit more work, is to dig a latrine. You’ll want a trench that is at least a couple feet deep, about two feet wide, and several feet in length. To use, simply straddle the trench and do what you have to do. After each trip to the latrine, shovel a bit of dirt back over the waste. Locate the latrine at least a few hundred feet from any water source.
Few of us probably have the space to store a year or two’s worth of toilet paper. If you do, feel free. For the rest of us, though, we’ll need to figure out something else to use. Newsprint might work, as might old magazines. But my suggestion is to save up old shirts and socks. Rather than tossing them once they develop holes, cut them into squares about four or five inches on a side. Just keep them in a bag or bin for the time being. When you end up needing to use them, set up a covered bucket near the toilet. Fill the bucket about halfway with a strong bleach solution. Used wipes get tossed into the bucket. Once it is full or you start running out of wipes, add detergent or soap to the water and agitate it to wash the wipes. Dump the water and add more water and soap to wash them a second time, then rinse them out well. Hang them to dry, then add them to the stack for reuse.
One of the most important things is to clean your hands after using the toilet. This cannot be stressed enough. One easy solution is to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer near the potty facilities. Prolonged use will tend to dry out the skin, so you may also want to have some sort of lotion available. Keep in mind it is alcohol in the sanitizer that allows it to evaporate quickly. Avoid putting your hands near an open flame right after using it. This includes lighting a smoke, lest you find out just how flammable alcohol fumes can be.
Doing laundry is another thing that, in a short-term situation, you might not need to worry much about. But, when we’re planning for an event that could last weeks, months, or even longer, we’re eventually going to run out of clean clothes. Unfortunately, doing laundry by hand is both time-consuming and exhausting. Do it once or twice and you’ll see why the advent of the mechanical clothes-washing machine was such a blessing to households around the world. You’ll also question the wisdom of wearing denim jeans all the time.
There are a few different ways to go about this. You could go old school and purchase a corrugated washboard and a large tub. Fill the tub with water, add detergent, and scrub away. Use a biodegradable laundry soap, such as Seventh Generation or Mountain Green. Rinse the clothes in another tub of water and hang them to dry.
You could even do without the washboard. Fill a bucket with soapy water and soak the clothes for a bit. Then, slap them against a large rock, scrubbing out the more stubborn stains, then rinse and hang.
The third method, and perhaps the easiest on your back and arms, is to build a washing machine of sorts out of a pail. Start with a five-gallon bucket that has a matching lid. You’ll also need a clean toilet plunger, the old-fashioned rubber kind. Cut a hole in the top of the lid, right in the center, just big enough to accommodate the plunger handle. Then, using a sharp knife or razor, cut three or four half-dollar size holes in the rubber end of the plunger. Space the holes evenly apart.
Fill the bucket about halfway with water and add soap. Toss in a few shirts or a pair of pants, put in the plunger, and thread the lid over the plunger handle. Use the plunger to agitate the clothes up and down and side to side for a few minutes. No need to go at this like you’re churning butter, just steady motions will do the trick. The lid is there to help prevent water from splashing everywhere, but you should still expect to get a little wet through all this.
Keep a small scrub brush nearby and use that to help remove ground in dirt. Once the clothes are clean (or as clean as they’re going to get), wring them out into the bucket, then rinse them in another one and hang to dry.
Obviously, whichever method you use, laundry is something that will likely take the better part of an entire day if you’re washing clothes for the family. But this is also a chore that can be delegated rather easily to children.
Don’t forget to recycle the water by reusing it in the gardens or even for bathing. This is why I suggested you use a biodegradable detergent, free of harsh chemicals that could harm you or your plants.
For general bathing, a very workable solution is to purchase a camp shower. This is a heavy-duty black plastic bag that you fill with water and suspend from a tree or post. The sun heats the water in the bag. While it won’t be steamy hot, it is far better than just dumping a bucket of rainwater on your head. The bag has a small hose and nozzle built in so you can direct the water where you wish. I’d suggest putting some sort of container on the ground for you to stand in as you shower so you can collect the runoff water and later reuse it in the garden or something.
Another solution is to set up a ladder and literally have someone dump buckets of water over your head. You could heat the water over a fire to make this a little more comfortable.
For either of these approaches, you might consider draping tarps or even old bed sheets over clotheslines to provide at least a modicum of privacy.
For situations where water is too scarce to allow for actual bathing, you’ll have to resort to sponge baths. It might sound absurd, but it is indeed possible to do a decent job of cleaning your body with less than two cups of water. Use the first cup to dampen a washcloth and get a bit of suds going on it with a bar of soap. Wash your body, paying particular attention to underarms, groin, and feet for staying clean. Then, use a second washcloth and the other cup of water to rinse off. Not the greatest solution, of course, but probably the best under the circumstances.
Stock up on plenty of soap and shampoo to last through the crisis. Remember, it need not be the high-dollar brand-name stuff. You aren’t looking for that high-gloss shine; you just want to be clean. One way to perhaps save a few bucks is to ask family and friends to save hotel shampoos and soaps for you when they travel. A friend of a friend of my wife’s travels extensively for her job and in just a few months collected a large box of hotel shampoo, body wash, and conditioner.
Toothbrushes are very cheap, and there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to put together a large stash of them. Toothpaste isn’t all that expensive either if you stick with the store brands. Taking care of your teeth is vitally important, so do everything you can to stock up on the necessary items. Don’t forget to floss!
In the event that the supply of toothpaste runs out, you can make a serviceable alternative out of salt and baking soda. Mix together the two ingredients, using one part salt to two parts baking soda. Sprinkle a bit on a toothbrush and brush normally. It won’t taste the greatest, but it will work to clean the teeth and gums. This also works better if you first grind the salt with a mortar and pestle or with a rolling pin, then mix with the baking soda.
A good-quality mouthwash might also be desirable. While your supply might not last forever, just a few bottles can last quite a while if you are diligent about rationing them. You can make a serviceable mouthwash by mixing hydrogen peroxide and water in roughly equal quantities. It might not taste minty fresh, but it will certainly do the job. While swishing with alcohol, such as vodka, will kill off bacteria, you’re probably better off saving such beverages for trading.
The goal isn’t really to have great-smelling breath, but to protect your teeth as best you can. Abscesses and other tooth issues can be not only very painful but also life threatening. You likely won’t have ready access to a dental clinic, either, to help with issues that crop up. If a tooth becomes infected, the only feasible way to handle it might be to remove it from the equation.
Hygiene is a critical component to your survival and health and it must be one of your survival priorities is SHTF.
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