Hygiene During Disasters

Maintaining good hygiene plays a critical role in preventing the spread of illness, disease, and viruses, among other things.

Hygiene is not limited to washing your hands frequently, or coughing in your elbow— although those things are very important. Hygiene extends to brushing your teeth daily, showering regularly, washing your hair, keeping your clothes clean, properly disposing of waste, etc.

During a natural disaster, these simple things can become a challenge. For example, in the event of a power outage, you may not have running water, or a toilet that flushes. In the event of a flood, your main source of water may have become contaminated.

If that doesn’t already sound awful, remember you’re most likely not the only one that are being affected. Imagine that all your neighbors are possibly dealing with the same situation. Think about it. That’s hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people who are equally being challenged to maintain proper basic hygiene.

Backed up or overflowing sewage systems are common in post-disaster scenarios. The lack of clean, potable water is also hard to come by. Becoming prepared for the challenges that come as a result of natural disasters is prudent and may save your life. Make sure you tailor your hygiene habits to cater to your family’s needs, whether it be that you have babies, young children, elderly family members, or pets. Find the hygiene checklist and contents list at the end of this section.


Hygiene tips and solutions


Personal hygiene methods may change when your resources are cut short or altered. These tips will help you stay clean in those times.


Clean water


Be sure to store enough water to meet you and your family’s personal hygiene needs daily. During any emergency situation, protect your water storage supply from becoming contaminated and use what you have in a wise manner. Only use clean water for hygiene purposes— the same that you would use for drinking. In the water storage section, we discussed methods of storing and purifying water.

In first-world countries, we have become accustomed to the luxury of having access to water any time of day— all we have to do is open the faucet. But in the aftermath of a disaster or even a long-term drought, this might no longer be the reality for us. It may be days, weeks, or months before your water is restored to your home, so be diligent about using what you need and don’t be wasteful. If you have children, teach them how to conserve.


Hands


It’s estimated that our hands contain an average of 1,500 bacteria per square centimeter of skin. While not all of it is harmful bacteria, not all of it is good either. Your hands are the ‘middleman’ between the contaminants found in the items you touch and your body. This is one of the easiest ways to catch and spread diseases.

You should wash your hands:

  • After using the bathroom, or toilet
  • After touching any surface or object that may be dirty or contaminated
  • After petting or touching animals
  • After covering your face with your hands to cough
  • Before preparing food
  • Before eating meals
  • Anytime you’ve come into contact with flood water

When you wash your hands, also wash your wrists, the back of your hands, under your fingernails, and between your fingers. Use antibacterial soap and scrub for 20 to 30 seconds. Sing that birthday song or count those Mississippis!

In the event where running water or antibacterial soap is not available, you can use hand sanitizer that contains a minimum 60% of alcohol.


Nails


Fingernails can contain harmful bacteria, dirt, and germs that can contribute to the spread of infections and diseases. Some health experts believe that your fingernails may contain more bacteria that what is found on the surface of your hands, and when you think about it, it makes sense. When we wash our hands, we oftentimes forget to dig deep into our fingernails and remove any unwanted germs that may be stuck under there. For this reason, it’s vital to maintain proper fingernail hygiene.

Be sure to:

  • Trim your nails often and keep them short, especially if you’re doing post-disaster clean-up
  • Do not cut your cuticles, since they protect your skin and nails from infections
  • Sterilize your nail clippers before and after use
  • When washing your hands, scrub under your nails for about 20 seconds
  • Try not to bite your nails

If you’re concerned about bacteria under your fingernails, wash and dry your hands, and then trace the inner part of your nails with a cotton swab that has been dipped in rubbing alcohol.


Teeth


Oral hygiene and health is critical, not just to prevent cavities and sore gums, but because any bacteria or infections of the mouth are swallowed and can easily spread throughout the rest of your body. Experts recommend brushing your teeth a minimum of twice a day for at least two minutes each time.

To prevent wasting too much clean water, fill a clean bottle with potable water and label it with your name— just like your toothbrush, you don’t want to be sharing this bottle with other people. Brush your teeth as you normally would, except drip water onto your brush as necessary. When you’re finished scrubbing, spit the toothpaste out and take a sip of water from your bottle. Gargle, gargle, and spit it out. Save the remaining water for later. Remember to floss afterwards!


Shower & Bathing


Sweating is your body’s natural way of regulating your temperature and releasing toxins, which is great, but we all know that it doesn’t produce the most fragrant of smells. In any case, showering at least every other day is highly recommended (and appreciated by the people you have around you).

If your water supply is limited, you can use antibacterial wet wipes or splashes of soapy water. Make sure to target the neck, armpits, elbows, belly, back, groin, knees, and feet.


Hair


Washing your hair is important to reduce oiliness and scalp buildup. It’s recommended that you wash your hair a minimum of once or twice a week.

  • If water is limited and you cannot wash your hair, you can absorb some of the excess oil by sprinkling a little bit of baby powder, dry shampoo, arrowroot, corn starch, or by spritzing rubbing alcohol. As an alternative, you can keep it tied in a pony tail.
  • If you’re in crowded places, cover your hair with a scarf or baseball cap to prevent the spread of head lice.
  • If you’re working in post-disaster recovery and relief, be sure to keep your hair covered to keep it clean for as long as possible. After disasters, there may be a lot of contaminants trapped within the debris and floating in the air— most of these are invisible to the naked eye.
  • If possible, avoid the use of hair products, such as gels, if you know you won’t be able to wash your hair within the next day or two.

Sickness & Wounds


If you’re sick, you should be extra careful to prevent the spread of the illness to other people. Some common sense tips include:

  • Properly disposing of any used tissues and bandages.
  • Protecting open wounds from environmental contaminants, dirt, and debris.
  • Coughing inside your elbow, not your hands.
  • Avoiding close contact with other people.
  • Wearing a face mask whenever you're in public places.
  • Wiping down any surfaces you’ve touched, such as door knobs and cell phones, with sanitizing wipes.
  • Staying home during the time it takes you to recover.
  • Getting medical help whenever is necessary and taking the appropriate medication.

Masculine needs


Men have a set of grooming supplies that they use regularly so I won’t delve deep into the subject. Whichever tools you use, be sure to keep them clean and protected from dust and dirt. Maintain your grooming habits as much as possible during post-disaster situations.


Feminine needs


Women know the supplies they need when in the midst of their lady-days, so I won’t go into too much detail here either but I will mention this— if you use pads and/or tampons, keep small plastic bags and ties for their proper disposal. If you use a menstrual cup, instead of disposable tampons and pads, have soap and clean water to sanitize it properly every time. Be sure to pack all your feminine supplies in a small easy-to-carry bag.


Action Step

Now that you have insight into the best practices for maintaining hygiene during disasters, it’s time to put together some supplies!

Download the hygiene supplies kit checklist below. Feel free to add or subtract items to the list.

Fill out the ‘contents list’ pages, which can be kept with your kits and be used in the future to remember which items you still need to purchase or update.