Too Poor for Basic Hygiene?

Updated on April 01, 2013
L.M. asks from Chicago, IL
27 answers

So there was this question asked a couple weeks back by now, and it's been in the back of my mind. The jist of it was that someone had to address a colleague about their bad body odor, and some responses were that maybe the person was too poor and could not afford to clean themselves daily. One example which stood out for me was a woman who worked in sales in an upscale establishment, and she lost commissions because her customers didn't want to be around her foul odor, and she did not make a lot of money. Surely, that is far more costly than investing in some self care products?

This got me to thinking.... A bottle of the cheap shampoo (VO5 or Suave, for example) is about $1.00 - $1.20. A basic bar of soap is probably about the same. A poor person could ration your daily use by using as little shampoo as possible to get the job done and skipping the conditioner. If can also use as little of the soap as possible and focus only on the "necessary" spots. Then there would be the cost of the water for the 5-10 min shower, which I have no idea what this would be. Then there is deodorant - again an inexpensive brand and using sparingly would not be too costly. I suppose you also have to factor in the cost to clean your clothes regularly so they don't smell too.

Outside of extenuating circumstances, such as medical issues that may incur expensive health care costs to remedy (possibly without benefit of health insurance) or homelessness, do you think being too poor is a valid reason for not maintaining your hygiene? Or do you think it's a matter of laziness or lack of self awareness - maybe they think no one can tell?

I worked with a women who was clean on Monday, but as the week progressed the greasy hair from her scalp got larger and larger. She was not homeless and both her and her husband were employed. She was called "Greasy Jamie" behind her back and widely thought to be lazy, although a good employee.

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answers from Austin on

I remember the days when I had to decide between groceries and diapers. $5 was a lot of money. I had good personal hygiene but if I had run out of everything and had to buy it all at one shot, I could see how a person would just try and get by with as little showering as they thought they could.

Another lady I knew washed her hair only once a week. We all saw how it would gradually get dirty. I think it may have had something to do with her disgust for her husband and was possibly trying to keep him away physically. I will not go into details about her husband, but he was despicable. You just never know what goes on in someone's life...

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Tampa on

I just feel mortified for all in this situation.

That being said, you really don't know what is going on is someone's life. I was the recipient of a note about body odor when I was a child in school. It is absolutely one of my most painful memories from childhood. I did bathe regularly. However, my mother was an animal hoarder so the environment that I grew up in was not sanitary and stunk. The note told me that I smelled like dogs...and I probably did. It was absolutely awful and I had no way of changing the environment that I lived in...

On the flip side, my father is a dirty disgusting person. He was the recipent of a note at work telling him that he needed to bathe and change his underwear. He was rank and simply too lazy to do anything about it. He didn't care and still doesn't to this day. Poor has absolutely nothing to do with his situation.

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answers from Portland on

I've known and been around many people who were very poor and they were well enough groomed. There clothes were usually sloppy or in poor taste but they smelled alright and had reasonable clean hair. Poverty is only an excuse for poor hygiene if one is homeless and they lack a place in which to get clean. Even then, some homeless people do OK with staying odor free.

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answers from Miami on

Some people aren't taught any better growing up. My mom went to school with a brilliant girl whose parents adopted her and her brother. It was a terribly dysfunctional home life, and she just didn't know any better. She actually didn't know what deoderant was. She was my mom's roommate for a year, and my mom quickly learned that she didn't bathe but once a week. So she handled it by saying something like "Do you want to get your bath in the morning or at night before bed? You choose, and I'll choose after you." The girl was surprised, but she followed my mom's lead. The next thing my mom did was talk about favorite shampoos - which one do you like the most? Would you like to try mine? That got the girl to realize that my mom washed her hair at least once a week. And then came the deoderant... same kind of thing.

Long after that, the girl brought up the subject with my mom and told her that she didn't know that people were supposed to do it. My mom had also taught her in a round about way that we wash our underwear after wearing it ONE day, when she made it "fun" to go do the wash together. Same thing for washing things that smell under the arms.

I know that the same can't apply to you since you don't live with her, but you could try to take the lady under your wing somehow. Maybe talk about favorite products, such as shampoo. My mom did this girl a tremendous kindness in her life, and the girl never forgot it. They have been lifelong friends.


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answers from Williamsport on

Hmmm. Well. If you've always had all your warm water working and a stable home routine and all the cheap hygiene products you need it may seem impossible for anyone to ever become dirty.

If you've ever used a gym to bathe once a week/month and found it hard to move your beauty products around and keep your clothes laundered while getting evicted from motels and crappy apartments with one bag and no car you've been there.

People with stable homes and two incomes and greasy hair have personal grooming issues of their own, but it's none of my business. When I come across someone with body odor I usually feel sympathy and not judgement just based of my own history and people I've known. What if they're depressed? What if they're abused? What if they're oblivious? What if they haven't had a stable place to sleep in weeks? I've been the girl reprimanded for not having nice pressed outfits to wear hostessing when I was living in my car with baby powder in my purse to hide the greasy roots in my hair. Where did the lady in the upscale establishment live? If no one knows then no one knows why she was smelly at work. Maybe she took a bus for two hours to and from a relative's apartment with no running water. Who knows? She was scaring off customers who didn't want to be around her foul odor?And people knew this? And she kept her job? Odd. Seems like she would be fired or like someone could have given her a heads up and some help.

But sure. Some people are just slobs if people need someone to make fun of and call names at the office. Sounds like Greasy Jamie worked in a hostile environment with no nice friends. Not one.

13 moms found this helpful


answers from Austin on

Yep that was me that posted. You can read my response here. It explains that she and her family were barley able to pay their rent and eat. They did not have electricity.

She did wash her hair and bathe.. in cold water, but she was allergic to typical deodorant. Remember, We live in Central Texas where it is already in the 80's,, With no air conditioning in her home (no electricity), catching the bus each day,. she really had a problem.

Also working in Retail we were paid equivalent of $10. per hour.
+ commission which may have been like $50. a week for her.

Our daughter worked for a Charity here in town. Bars of soap, toothpaste and toothbrush and shampoo are luxuries.. Most people are just trying to eat to survive. I am talking about families.

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answers from Wausau on

Even if you have the soap, you still need the water.

Sadly, millions of people in the US don't have regular access to clean, running water. This includes the homeless, of course, but also people with homes and jobs.

Sometimes the geographic location is a factor. Perhaps you're too far rural for city water, and your well dries up. If you can't afford to have water hauled in or dig a new well, you're stuck. Or people might live close enough to get a city hookup, but can't afford the high cost of the connection. Sometimes the city water gets shut off to a house because the bill can't be paid.

There are also situations such as living in an apartment buildings that has one shared bathroom for all tenants. When you have 1 shower for 50+ people, sometimes you have to wait awhile to get your chance.

My own in-laws lived without running water for a few years before they had a properly functioning well and plumbing system set up in their rural cabin-type home. They'd haul water in for drinking, cooking and washing up, but they didn't have a shower or tub back then. They had a 'sun shower' in the summer (outdoor water filled bag with a hose that warmed in the sunshine) but in the winter it was sponge bath to nothing They were neither poor nor homeless, it just took awhile to get things flowing with the water situation. I don't think they even realized that they were sometimes...not quite fresh...the the noses of others.

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answers from Grand Forks on

Some people who are poor live in homes with limited facilities (ie one bath tub) and a large number of people. While it may be relatively inexpensive for one person to bathe, for all the people in the household to bathe could get expensive, therefore they may have to limit the amount of bathing. Some poor people have to make choices between electricity and food. If they haven't got electricity they don't have hot water, and it is much more difficult to keep clean without hot water. If you are poor and the plumbing breaks you can't easily get it fixed. Many poor people become depressed due to their circumstances, and one of the classic signs of depression is a lack of personal hygiene. There are people who work two jobs to get by, and just don't have time to bathe. There are also mental illnesses like hoarding that can affect hygiene. People will fill the bathroom with so much junk they can't even get in to bathe.

I think about my parents when they grew up. Nobody bathed more than once a week. The water was brought in from the well Sunday night, heated up and the tub was filled. Everyone in the family had a turn in the same water. They wore the same clothes all week as well, because washing clothes was a much bigger chore than it is today.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

Just to present a different kind of perspective, it's possible that in this woman's case, it wasn't actual body odor from being unclean. Food from certain cultures (I've particularly noticed it with Indian food) can stay on a person's body and actually cause a very strong odor. It can be quite overwhelming and, to some, foul, especially if you're not used to it. I remember years ago my sister having to change desks in school because the boy in front of her had such a strong smell on his clothes and body from his food. He was clean, showered daily, but it just was the way that it was.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Reading the responses I stick to my guns. If she has a job, she has water and a bathroom paper. I know, I've been there. Went to school, go the bathroom, wet a towel and wipe. The lady has a job. I see no excuse because I can't really think of a job where there is no water.
There are people in the streets that can't bath. I totally get that... but... they are living on the streets and even they know of places to clean up when they want.
No, I grew up dirt poor, my family in Vietnam pump to get water. They don't smell and nether did I as a kid. There is such a thing as wetting a towel and cleaning important parts. Water is all you need to be clean. I admit my hair as a kid was oily as I did not shower and wash it every day but we had a family of 8 and one bottle of cheap shampoo lasted a long time. For one person, they can clean their hair... no hot water needed.

By the way, I'm assuming the person being called a "colleague" has a job so I doubt they are homeless and even if they were, my ex grew up homeless as a kid and though his hygiene was not perfect he did shower as I do recall his stories. When you have a job, you have to have a level of presentability unless your job is not around other people. I can understand little things that are not perfect like clothes that aren't washed often or hair a bit oily and the week progressed but total offensive dirtiness... I know poor and poor people aren't all rags and stink unless you just don't care but I've seen non poor people fall under that.

Sorry, I guess I don't like poor as an excuse because my mother never let me use that as an excuse. You were presentable, you got an education and you make your life better than it was for them. There are just some people who don't care and see empowerment in that but if they choose that route and I don't like it then that's my choice as well too to not like it.

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answers from Jacksonville on

I find it difficult to believe that it is a financial issue and not a self-awareness/laziness/mental health issue, if the person is employed.

However, I have never been in a situation in which I would have to forego diapers for a baby or food for breakfast/lunch/dinner in order to buy a bar of soap or some shampoo or deodorant.

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

I don't know... it's hard for me to believe that someone has absolutely no resources to be clean. Poor, homeless or otherwise.
Growing up we had very little. My Mom always said, we didn't have much, but we had soap. She didn't let not having money be an excuse for us to be dirty or smell bad.

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answers from Seattle on

I am responding as someone who is or could be considered a stinky person.

I am a hippie. Well, a wanna be hippie born to very hippie parents(born and raised before and during that era so I had a great teacher of all thing hip and E).

All this being said, my unwanting desire to shower on a daily or even regular basis, is due to the fact I can not handle seeing myself naked, that often. I will forever be a recovering Anorexic. I have been able to put weight on and keep it on, I just can not stand to see myself naked and healthy. So this is deep deep deep down, why I am a little on the stinky side sometimes....Is it the best excuse? No, but it is honest.

I will towel wash the pits and nether regions daily. As well as wear Lavender Clay deodorant.

I will not use soap soap. Or regular shampoos and conditioners. I dont know why or how anyone uses them. They are packed full of toxins that are dangerous for our bodies. Same goes for Lotions and Deodorants. Why would a WANT to lather something on that once soaked into my skin, would only build up the very things that cause cancer and autoimmune disorder's.

I buy massive quantities of Dr. Bronner's soaps. In three of his scents. Patchouli, Lavender and the more than sinus clearing Peppermint...Dont get that one in the eyes...YIKES!!.....Due to HIGH cost of this soap and the size of my family and the amount the rest of them shower in this house....We have a very strict rule of NOT TO MUCH! We make the three GIANT bottles last ALL year...and then a medium size Tea Tree for those of us with Dreadlocks(my monkey in the middle has been working on his head of dread for three years now, they are freakin awesomely adorable...and have won him the coolest hair award in his Kindergarten class at School.

Before I started my head of Dreadlocks......I was a once a week to every two weeks hair washer. I was someone who had to do the blow dry, flat iron then curl(big and smaller curling iron for volume and wow) routine every time I washed my hair.

Since my dreadlocks are still in infancy, I go about five weeks in between serious washing. When I do wash it, I use a combo of Dr. Bronner's peppermint wash and Dr. Bronner's Tea Tree(I buy this is much smaller quantity because a little goes a very very long way). both soaps act as an antibacterial agent and leaves my scalp feeling amazing.

Dread locks can be done with washing hair more often. I do it this way because it is very hard to get them totally bone dry once washed. Putting the time in between washes actually is keeping my scalp healthier then washing it more often, and not getting them fully dry. Mold can form in the dreadlocks, if not properly and completely dried. I think once they are fully formed and finished I am hoping that drying them gets a little easier.

This does not mean I do not tend to the condition of my scalp over those 5 weeks. I check it weekly for fuzz(on scalp or just within the locks, my husband helps with the back)and trimmed. I use dry shampoo twice a week to help keep the grease at a minimum and to keep my scalp for being itchy and dry.

I am not ashamed of who I am and how often the shower water touches my body.

If there is a need for a ''good'' reason as to why I am the way I am.......I think the ones listed seem fair and in my mind understandable. I dont NOT shower because I am Lazy. I CHOOSE not to because 1. When push comes to shove, there is seldom a day where I do STINK, for real. 2. I feel that the benefits of showering daily with bottles full of toxins, is playing Russian Roulette every time I turn the water on.

When it comes to the other body products I use....I have strict guidelines and standards as to what I will use. I have researched EVERY ingredient that is put in EVERYTHING I have ever used.

Lazy? I SERIOUSLY would be insulted, if I making informed and researched decisions on what I find to be ok to use and then how often, as LAZY.

Lush. The handmade body products, that originated in oh Canada has been my saving grace. I spent months slowly going through all of their body products, facial and beyond. My favorites being ''dirty'' anything(fragrance featuring Lavender, Sandalwood and many many more amazing smells), Blue Sky Bath chunk, you put it in bathtub and it adds a little bubble and the most amazing small. I like to break it off and then just rub it on my body, it seconds grainy body scrub, removes dead skin.

I knew a girl in elementary school that had the nickname as smelly Heidi. I was about the only person who would play with her at recess. It was not anything she could help. Her mom died when she was little and her dad did not know what he was doing with his kids. It was sad. She was not allowed to shower. He did not think a girl her age needed too.

Does it suck to have to get a wiff of someone with killer BO? Yep. Even I sometimes get a wiff of someone walking by and wonder how they dont smell themselves as well. Maybe this employee has some serious allergies to body products. Maybe she is as aware how dangerous these products are to use on your body on a daily basis. OR maybe she sees the value in Showering in the evening BEFORE she goes to bed(sleeping in a bit longer can sometimes me the world to some people), she then could be a very sweaty sleeper(my dad sweats so much a night my mom buys him a new pillow every three months or sooner). Regardless of her reasoning, you know making fun of her and calling her names is childish and well, playing the bully.

I am fit into the ''poor'' least by my Bank account holdings. I dont have two quarters to rub together nine days out of ten.

I smell(and this is more being used as imagery for this posts sake, as I do not consider myself to seriously stink, yet I can go a week or more sometimes between showers).

I am a person on conscience. I am not lazy. I dont waste ungodly amounts of water showering one or MORE times daily.

People in American would not stand a chance in many many many many many developing and third world Countries/communities. For there is no Perfume Stores. Glade plug ins. Fancy $40 bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Let alone Deodorant.

You will find a community water tub/jug/hole where the community washes. Water is not something they can easily hook up to plumbing and have routed to every hut or tent in the village. It is rationed and protected. As there is no great source or massive abundance.

I always think of the Facebook meme of a little African boy standing next to a foreign aid worker and the caption is''You mean to tell you you have enough water, that you even poop in it(water)?!?!?''

I can not assume anything of your Co-worker. She could very easily smell awful and I bet by Friday she can clear a lunch room faster then a Fart in a church.......What if her situation is something more than what meets YOUR or anyone else's eye. She could have severe allergies to soap or other skin or personal issues, she probably does not feel you need to know about her. I could see her being someone who does not have many friends in the office, given the tone of your post(I could be wrong). Maybe, if she is close to someone in the office, you could speak with them, to see if they would maybe have an idea on how to politely tell her, without offending her.

This is a time for a lesson in Tolerance and Kindness, Maybe for her birthday or just because, the office staff could do something special, like give her a Gift card to ''LUSH''....If there isn't one near you, you can buy one online. You could also give her one of there prewrapped combo sets. They start at like $12.95 and come with mini bottles of different body products.

Think before you speak. Or listen to someone saying hurtful things. She probably hears the snickers and is aware of the names she is called behind her back. All of which makes whoever says or does not defend, or says something to perpetuate the jokes, is a bully. If your child was caught doing this in school, he/she would for sure be meeting with the Teacher and Principal. Would you be embarrassed if your son or daughter did this to someone? same goes for you, the parent.

it all comes down to tolerance. Dont ever go outside the country. You could seriously insult someone complaining about ones smell. Even in some first world surroundings.

If you're smelly and you know it clap your hands(clap, clap) Repeat 3 x's, and your face can truly show it.....If you're smelly and you know it clap your hands.

If you dont care and you will show it.. lift your arms pits(lift,lift)Repeat 3 x's, and your face can truly show it, if you dont care and you know it, lift your arm pits.

Good Monday Morning, Mamapedia..........What a topic to start my morning off:) and Gasp, today day is a Libby shower day......Smell me later:)

5 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

You know, it's possible they technically could afford shampoo, soap, and deodorant, but maybe they can't afford mental health care. This is something many health care plans don't cover, or cover minimally, even for people who are insured.

If you get to know people, there's usually a good reason for their issues. But some people, unfortunately, have an emotional and spiritual poverty that prevents them from extending empathy and allows them to pass judgment on strangers on the basis of little or no information. That, or they're just lazy and lack self-awareness. Which one do you think it is?

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

I would send a note to the person, if I liked them. I would say something like, Don't worry, only I am sending this note and its is not from anyone else but me. If you are having a hard time affording hygiene essentials, I will help you. To remain anonymous, if you want help, please leave a tissue on your seat and I will then know that its okay to lend assistance. God bless and I have also been in your shoes. (Even if I had not). I would then put $20 in an envelope in her seat when no one was looking.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

My grandmother had a saying: it's not a sin to be poor but soap and water are cheap.

And that applies to self, home AND clothes.

I'm sorry, but I have very little respect for people that live in filth of any kind.

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answers from Miami on

Lots of reasons why someone could have this issue. I attended a very exclusive prep school all of my life (work there now) and the Director of Special Programming STUNK. I mean to High Heaven! She had a medical condition and no amount of showering could fix it. Lazy? nope. Poor? Definitely not.

Some people don't shower daily for skin reasons. My mom showers twice a week because her skin is so dry that it will actually peel/hurt to shower more than that. My children are exzema prone (I know I spelled that incorrectly), so they shower every-other-day and sometimes not even that often if they aren't "dirty" or if they were swimming that day.

No, being "too poor" to shower probably isn't a valid reason because as you pointed out there are inexpensive products. However, mental health conditions, medical conditions and lifestyle choices are valid reasons to appear this way.

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answers from Washington DC on

i just don't buy that poor hygiene is due to finances. you can get clean with NO soap if you scrub vigorously.
i think it's much, much more likely to be some combination of culture and cluelessness.

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answers from Spokane on

i doubt she cant spare 5-10 bucks at the dollar store to get what she needs. to me theres no excuse. its personal choice not to shower regularly. when your low on the income line you make do with what you have and go cheap.

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answers from New York on

When I was in my late teens/early 20's and on my own, I was pretty poor. My job was low paying, and I had to maintain a rented room, pay phone, medical, college, etc. But I was able to manage to keep myself supplied with toothpaste, deodorant and Suave shampoo (doubled as body wash!). I never let myself run out of things and have to buy everything at once, I'd buy one product a week to keep myself stocked. As long as you are not living in your car and have access to a shower, basic cleanliness should not be an issue. Someone too poor to not even have $5 per month for some soap/toothpaste/shampoo is poor enough to be on public aid. If someone that I worked with was not practicing good hygiene, my thought would not be that they are too poor - people can figure out how to shop sales, use coupons and get on those free sample lists.

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answers from Washington DC on

Some people are oblivious to their own smell.

When I was in high school and college - especially in college - I would come home WREAKING of formaldehyde - I couldn't smell it. I was around it soo much I couldn't smell it.

There are people who are too lazy. There are people who just don't care...from what I understand - Matthew McConaughey doesn't wear deodorant...

it's about priorities. and some people don't feel that personal hygiene is "that" important - YIKES!!!

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answers from Portland on

In Portland, in Old Town, where there is a significant homeless population, a truck visits with the words "Shower to the People" on the side. It's a mobile shower.

I don't even guess as to why people smell these days. One of our local characters, an Elvis impersonator, reeks. He is hydrophobic-- had a very unusual phobia to water. Another guy I knew in the Navy NEVER bathed. Just stank to the point that he was forcibly stripped and scrubbed by the other guys in his barracks. They threw out his clothes and actually bought new dungarees for him because he never laundered them. His teeth were green.

That guy *just didn't care*. Huge difference from being petrified of water.

People complain about BO, but for me, it's actually the heavy smokers that make me want to toss my cookies. Some people who smoke and ride public transit just stink of the smoke. If you have enough money for a pack of smokes, please bathe. Please. BO is nothing compared to stale ashtray. I actually get nauseous.

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answers from Las Vegas on

There are a lot of people who don't shower daily or wash their hair. I can smell the hair oil and it disgusts me.

A skin doctor once told me that we live in the desert and we should not be showering everyday. I had come to him with a dry patch on my leg that would not go away. I told him I thought living in the desert was all the reason more to shower every day. Who knows.

It does sound like you are speaking specifically of body odor, but there are certain diets which will make you stink as the smell of the food oozes through your pores. At the same time, sinus problems can cause bad breath.

Perhaps the person cannot help it.

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answers from New York on

You are right. Being "poor" has nothing to do with it. I worked at a technical college where the attire of dress of the students was often innapropriate. There was the same argument that they can't afford professional clothes but yet they could afford the latest phones and sneakers. Unless there are some really unique situations, "poor" is just an excuse. People need to wash their clothes, clean their houses, not smoke, and open their windows.

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answers from Indianapolis on

There was a guy that worked with me who had bad body order. He had to be told to wash. He made $70,000 so money was not an issue. I think it was pure laziness. He was lazy on the job too and was eventually fired. I think also he didn't wash his clothes often. He was married too so I often wondered what his wife was like.

Even if you don't have much money you can go to the dollar store and get supplies. Off brand items will get the job done just like name brand items. There is no excuse to be nasty.

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answers from Washington DC on

Yes you can be to poor to be able to have “good” personal hygiene. You can also have been brought up in a generation where showers were not a daily “ritual”. My mother washes her hair weekly and showers every other day because that is how she was brought up. Problem is she has an “odor” that lingers if she doesn’t shower daily. My sister is passive aggressive in a way and figured she would buy her scented body spray/ body care products hoping she would get the hint. This only made it worse! We have to purchase the basic Dove products in order to eliminate the odor and encourage daily hygiene, especially when she goes out with us.

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answers from Washington DC on

I suspect it's more than poverty, though someone could have skin conditions that require better soaps and be reluctant to buy Suave if they'll break out. When we were living on my mom's single income as a kid, we did always bathe and used a lot of Suave products. And White Rain. Not top end, but got the job done, you know? So I think that the coworker you describe doesn't understand that she needs to wash her hair more and needs it gently pointed out to her. Or the person with bad foot odor who doesn't notice. Etc. I wonder if sometimes it's that people don't realize their chemistry has changed and they need to do x more often.

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