Keeping yourself, or someone you are caring for, clean is essential for good health. Poor hygiene can cause skin complaints and infections, and be a source of discomfort and low self-esteem.
How to maintain daily hygiene
To maintain daily personal hygiene, you should make sure:
- your hands are washed after you've used the toilet
- your genitals and anal area are washed every day
- your face is washed daily
- you're fully bathed or showered at least twice a week
- your teeth are brushed twice a day
It is also important that you have regular dental checks. Find out more about dental treatment for people with special needs.
Help with washing and bathing
For most people, washing is a very private activity. If you are helping someone else wash or bathe, be sensitive and try to maintain their dignity. You may feel awkward and embarrassed, especially at first.
To make bathing and washing as pleasant and comfortable as possible, you might consider:
using pleasant-smelling shampoo, bubble bath or soap
playing music the person you care for likes and is familiar with
if the person you're washing is confused, explaining what's happening as you go along
being sensitive to their mood
Carer's tip from Scope
"If you are caring for someone who won't wash, get involved with activities that are followed by showers – for example, swimming. It may help if they see other people showering. My son only started using the shower and wetting his head because he saw it in a film he was watching."
Maintaining dignity with hygiene
Be aware of the emotional state of the person you care for when helping them wash. For example, some people can be anxious about deep bath water. Adaptations, such as seats or recliners, can help with anxiety. Reassure the person that you won't let them be hurt.
Overhead showers can be frightening to some people. If you have no bath or there is a good reason for using a shower rather than a bath, use a handheld shower.
Ask the person how they would prefer to be helped and allow them as much independence as you think is safe. If they had a routine before you began caring for them, find out what it was and stick to it as much as you can. Find out which shampoo, shower gel or soap they prefer to make the experience more familiar to them.
Many people become self-conscious when undressed in front of others. Be sensitive to the situation and approach it in the way you think is most appropriate. The person you care for may feel isolated if you leave them alone. How you handle this depends on your relationship with them. Have clothes and towels with you so you don't have to leave them alone in the bathroom if they don't want you to.
Safety when washing or bathing
If you or the person you're looking after has limited mobility or problems balancing, make sure:
the floor is not slippery (dry it if necessary)
the room is a comfortable temperature
the water is comfortably warm – older people particularly feel the cold, so bear this in mind when adjusting the temperature
the locks are removed from the door – you or the person you care for may want privacy, but other people may need access in an emergency
If you are caring for someone, protect your own safety – for example, by getting advice on helping someone get in and out of the bath. See more on moving and handling.
Going to the toilet
Going to the toilet (toileting) is an important part of personal hygiene, regardless of whether you or the person you're looking after is able to control their bladder and bowels (continent) or not.
Incontinence can create feelings of shame or embarrassment for both the carer and the person being cared for. Sometimes people may be in denial about their incontinence or refuse to accept help. Reassure them it's not their fault and approach the issue in a calm, reassuring way.
Giving a bed bath
If the person you care for cannot move or has extremely limited mobility, you may need to give them a bed bath. You will need to be extra careful when moving or handling them. Specialist disposable baths are available for people who need a bath where you are put fully in the water.
Getting help with hygiene
If you're finding it difficult to cope with your own or someone else's toileting, washing or general hygiene, contact your local authority, a local carers' organisation, or call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.
The Alzheimer's Society has more tips on helping someone to wash.
As many as one in three people have difficulty controlling their flow of urine. And while you may not have a problem controlling your bowel or bladder, a mobility problem can make successfully visiting the toilet difficult.
Continence problems can cause physical problems such as skin irritation and infection, as well as embarrassment and loss of confidence.
Your GP can advise you on NHS services that may help with your continence. They can provide support, advice and information, and may refer you to continence advisers or specialists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and dietitians.
A continence adviser may be able to provide many small items and other equipment that can help with continence, including:
Your social services department should be able to provide small aids and adaptations for the home, including:
raised toilet seats
You can also buy continence equipment for yourself. The Bladder and Bowel Foundation provides an independent directory of incontinence products.
Some social services departments provide a laundry service for people who have incontinence or bowel and bladder problems. In addition, some local authorities provide laundry services for those who find it difficult to manage their laundry because it is too physically demanding.
You will need to ask your social services department if they provide this service. Your local authority will usually carry out an assessment of your situation to work out what is the best service for you. Some local authorities make a small charge for their laundry service or only launder large items such as bedding.