Smelly Teen? Let's Talk Teen Hygiene

Teen girl brushing her teeth

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Teaching teens about good hygiene tends to be one part teaching and many parts (gentle) reminders. While you've likely taught them most of these skills from early childhood on, some of these hygiene tasks are new and/or are now being done independently. It's also common for kids to grow less vigilant on personal hygiene when they hit middle and high school, especially once they're no longer under their parent's watchful eye while grooming.

Here's a primer on which healthy hygiene habits to teach your teen and how to instill them into your child's daily routine.

Why Are Hygiene Habits Important?

Hygiene is essentially how we keep our bodies clean and “sanitary.” Cleanliness practices serve two basic functions. Firstly, being clean helps us to be sanitary. Maybe not completely free of germs, but mostly free of the germs that are harmful and could cause disease. Poor hygiene can lead to tooth decay, skin infections, and many other preventable illnesses.

Secondly, hygiene impacts social interactions. Other people, adults, in particular, expect people to be clean. So, good hygiene allows us to interact with other people more positively. It can be unpleasant to be in close contact with someone who has bad breath or body odor. A tidy appearance shows self-care.

Proper hygiene demonstrates that you take care of and value yourself. Plus, it's respectful to others to present yourself in a tidy manner. Poor hygiene, on the other hand, can result in social rejection.

Where Teens Learn About Hygiene

In many cases, our children learn how to behave by watching our example. Hygiene is no different. If you have a regular routine for keeping yourself clean, your teen will see this as normal behavior. However, as noted above, it's also typical for tweens and teens to become laxer about their hygiene routines, so it's helpful for parents to be diligent in making sure their kids are keeping up with these daily habits.

If your child skips a day of teeth brushing or showering, it's not the end of the world. However, if this pattern slips into several days, ignoring these tasks might snowball into rarely doing them unless parents step in to remind them to resume these self-care behaviors regularly.

Peers also shape how teens behave. If your child's best friend tends to be especially clean or loads up on cologne, don't be surprised when they start showering more frequently or come home with a new body wash or perfume. Alternatively, if their friends don't seem especially concerned with maintaining optimal hygiene, then your child might become less inclined as well.

Many schools also instruct students about the importance of proper hygiene habits, such as showering regularly and wearing deodorant.

Teen Hygiene Basics

Basic hygiene behaviors are a guide and should be tailored to your teen's needs. Also, different families will have different preferences or rules in terms of what constitutes proper hygiene. So, in some households, a daily bath and freshly combed hair are expected, while others may opt for less stringent requirements. Follow your instincts on what is needed for your child.

Typical Hygiene Guidelines

Every teen should:

  • Brush teeth twice a day and, preferably, floss daily.
  • Shower or bathe as needed, which often means every day or every other day.
  • Trim nails, as needed.
  • Use deodorant or antiperspirant as needed.
  • Wash hair regularly.
  • Wear clean socks and underwear every day.

Bathing and Deodorant

If your teen has oily skin or hair and/or participates in regular, vigorous athletics, a daily shower might be necessary. If their skin is dry, then bathing every few days is acceptable and even preferred because too much bathing strips away the skin's natural protective oils. Additionally, different hair types will require different frequencies of shampooing, between every day to weekly or even less often.

Deodorant or antiperspirant is a personal choice in various ways. If your teen has an issue with sweating, an antiperspirant may be in order. Be careful of overusing antiperspirants though as they can block the sweat glands underneath the arms, leading to painful lumps that may need to be examined and treated by your pediatrician.

If your teen showers daily and doesn't feel that deodorant is necessary, and you agree (just give them the sniff test), then it can be safely omitted. Some families are also concerned with the chemicals in deodorant and may opt for products with natural ingredients (or skip the step entirely).

Dental Hygiene

Good dental hygiene will help prevent a variety of ills. Brushing your teeth removes some of the common bacteria that can cause bad breath. This removal of bacteria is also helpful in reducing the risk of various diseases and conditions, including gingivitis (infection of the gums) and cavities.

Flossing removes the bacteria and dirt that are trapped between the teeth. Those bacteria, if not removed, can get into the bloodstream and can even lead to heart disease, as well as to tooth decay and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). Research has shown that daily flossing might even increase your life expectancy because it removes these dangerous bacteria. Your teen may not be thinking about living longer but this research is a great reason for everyone to floss.

Shaving

Around puberty (or sometimes earlier), teens may decide to start shaving. Legs, armpits, pubic areas, and faces are possible areas your teen may want to shave. Instruct your child on proper techniques for safely using razors or electric razors. Being sure to use a clean razor and enough soap (or shaving cream) and water will reduce the likelihood of irritation. Note that whether or not to shave is a personal choice and not a reflection on cleanliness.

Grooming

There are lots of choices for teens to make around grooming, some of which are optional, others are more about health. Hairstyling, plucking eyebrows, trimming (or painting) nails, face washing, acne treatment, hand washing, and wearing makeup are areas of personal grooming that you may want to talk to your teen about.

Teach them the basics of whichever grooming habits are applicable to them. Changing their clothes daily (or when dirty, sweaty, or stained) and how to do laundry also play into healthy hygiene. Keeping their room tidy and their bed made (and sheets clean) are good habits to get into as well.

Other Hygiene Issues

For menstruating teens, be sure to instruct them on the proper use of feminine hygiene products, such as tampons, sanitary pads, or menstrual cups. Learning to track their period can also help them know when to expect their period—and avoid being unprepared for bleeding. Period panties are another option that can help them stay dry and clean, particularly if their cycles are sporadic.

Contact lens care, keeping glasses clean, and any hygiene steps required for those with braces or retainers are also important areas to discuss with your child, as needed.

Learning about basic injury care is also part of healthy hygiene. So, make sure your child knows how to properly tend to a wound, including washing it out with clean hands, using antibiotic ointment, and covering cuts with a sterile bandage. Knowing when to ask for help (or call the doctor) are also key.

Another hygiene issue some teens have is nail-biting. Help your teen understand why this habit is unhealthy, including the hazard of ingesting germs from the fingers and potential damage to the nails and nail beds (which can get infected). Brainstorm strategies for helping them break the habit, such as using special flavored nail polish that tastes really bad or using a code word to remind them to stop.

My Teen Won't Bathe!

Although it is even more common in the preteen years, sometimes teens will refuse to shower or bathe. First, it's important to understand whether or not the reduced bathing is a problem for your teen or a problem for you.

If you feel your teen should shower daily, but they think that every other day is fine and they're reasonably clean, perhaps agreeing to disagree would be a reasonable path. Alternatively, if they are not showering and are visibly dirty, smell bad, or their poor hygiene is causing negative repercussions at school, then it is a problem.

Also, it's important to consider if their lack of interest in showering is related to larger mental health issues, such as depression or issues with body image. In fact, studies show that those with more frequent bathing habits also report healthier mental health.

Strategies to Encourage Bathing

There are a few ways to deal with a teen who won't bathe or keep up basic hygiene. One way is to purchase personal care items geared for teens. Deodorant, soap, body spray, or even acne face wash that are left in the bathroom might be more appealing to teens. Don't buy what you would buy, but look for products geared towards teens. Fun scents and packaging may help, too.

Another way is to have a basic hygiene discussion with your child. Sometimes, when you are driving (and they are a captive audience), you can get a short discussion in about what is expected, hygiene-wise. It's important to steer clear of shaming or making them feel bad, simply focus on offering basic instructions and why the tasks are important.

Alternatively, it might be helpful to enlist someone besides a parent to talk to a teen about this sometimes delicate topic. Sometimes, your teen will listen to another adult, but not you, so use someone your teen trusts. If this does not seem like it is enough, an appointment with a counselor might be in order.

If the problem is severe enough and impacting how your child interacts with other teens, professional help may be in order. Make an appointment with your pediatrician or family healthcare provider. Discussing the issue with the provider ahead of time may reduce your child's embarrassment and help the healthcare provider get straight to the point.

A Word From Verywell

Hygiene is not frequently an issue, but when it is, it can be a big issue. With a little information and guidance, your teen will be on the path to good personal care.

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