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How Women Get Clean Around The World

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Illustrations by Abbie Winters

We're obsessed with what people in other countries eat, how they dress, and where they hang out -- after all, these habits are ways to understand and embrace cultures and customs that are different from our own. But have you ever thought about how people in other countries bathe? Military showers or long, lingering baths? Shower gel or bar soap? Daily or every other day? More importantly: Bidet or no bidet? Well, the answer may depend on one's postal code.

Even within one country, people's bathing customs, preferences, and tendencies depend on so many factors: geographical location (city apartment dwelling, sprawling suburbs, or rustic countryside?), climate (boiling hot or cold and dry?), lifestyle, cultural beliefs, and more. From the U.S. to South Korea to France to Sierra Leone, when it comes to bathing habits, how different -- and yet the same -- we all are is fascinating. Which is why we decided to do a deep dive on all things hygiene -- pulling back the shower curtain, if you will, on how a diverse selection of people from around the world keeps clean.

Read on to learn a few hacks that will make your own bathing experience more fulfilling, dispel quite a few stereotypes, and make you realize that Americans are actually kind of, erm, behind when it comes to post-bathroom hygiene.

Australia

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Considering the beach-and-surf culture in Australia, it should be no surprise that showers aren't limited to inside the home. "People regularly go for a cheeky swim or surf before or after work," says Sydney native and Brooklyn transplant Kate Williams, founder of Pistol PR. "Most beaches have cold-water showers on the edge of the sand to rinse off before heading home for a proper shower."

Since Australia's climate runs temperate to "almost tropical," daily showers are the norm -- especially in the summer, when Aussies might even opt for a cold shower by choice. The environment is also top of mind. "We suffer from droughts and water shortages, so water is scarce," she adds. "Lots of people have custom showerheads that reduce the amount of water dispersed." So, obviously, brief showers are key, too.

When lathering up, Australians look to water-based shower gels as opposed to bar soaps. "They leave you feeling fresh and clean in a hot climate," Williams says. "Lots of people use loofahs or exfoliating gloves, too. With all of that sun, we have natural tans [so we] aren't as [worried we will buff] off dead skin."

In regards to total-body cleansing, there's just the shower since bidets aren't prevalent, plus "water is a luxury," Williams points out. But, she says, "Because of proximity, lots of Australians have experienced travels to Southeast Asia, where they are introduced to a tap or hose attached to the toilet." (More later on the handheld-showerhead contraption, or what's technically referred to as a "bidet shower" or "health faucet" -- a common sight next to toilets in Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East.) Feminine-hygiene shower gels are also quite rare in Australia, and wipes haven't caught on in the eco-minded country. "We're really careful about preserving our oceans and environmentally-minded, so wipes aren't a common thing," Williams says.

China

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The People's Republic of China is the most populous country in the world -- as in, over 1.35 billion people -- and it's the second largest in terms of sheer landmass. So, bathing and showering habits differ depending on a multitude of factors. U.S.-based fashion designer Nini Wang was happy to give us an overview from her experiences growing up in the eastern city of Qingdao. "For me and for my friends, we shower every day," Wang says. "There are people who shower twice a day, and also maybe once or twice a week. It really depends on the person. It's a very personal thing." In the city, quick showers are the norm and baths just aren't as common.

In some circles, bathing habits stemming from ancient Chinese-medicine traditions are still practiced today. For example, the post-partum confinement period -- covered quite a bit by the Western media -- includes a ban on showering for a month after giving birth to avoid exposure to cold air. "It is still being said that women should not wash [their] hair during their periods because that may lead to a headache or even gynecological cancer later in their lives," Wang adds. "However, it's getting more and more convenient to shower nowadays, and we have blowdryers. So now, people tend to believe that showering during periods is fine as long as they can look out for catching a cold."

The paid public shower and community sauna were common practice when Wang was growing up. With apartment living becoming more widespread in cities, people are showering at home these days, but they'll still include the exfoliation process with a bath towel. Although, body scrubs are gaining popularity. Some homes and hotels might have the shower bidet next to the toilet, but that and the traditional bidet aren't commonly used. But the Japanese washlet is slowly catching on in China. "A lot of my friends, when they're decorating their house or they're moving, they want to find a way to have that kind of toilet," Wang says. "It's a nice thing to have. It's good for hygiene and also it's very functional."

Japan

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"Americans like to be clean, but people in Japan are even cleaner," says American-beauty-writer-turned-Tokyo-expat Cynthia Popper. "Face masks, washlet toilets, hand sanitizer: everywhere. It's a very hygienic culture." Daily bathing rituals, usually taking place in the evening, are the norm. Popper explains that the practice begins by sitting on a bench in the shower, washing off with a nozzle showerhead, and then finishing with a "relaxing bath." Sounds pretty luxurious, but the Japanese forgo any "bubbles, oils, soaps," and other accoutrements in the tub. "It's more like a personal Jacuzzi experience."

Frequent hair washes are just as regimented. "The general consensus is that if you have product in your hair, you should wash it daily," Popper says. "There is no dry shampoo in Japan."

The hygiene protocols continue outside of the shower. In the sweltering summers in Tokyo, "people cool off with mint body sprays, which are lovely," Popper says. The chronically polite Japanese probably wouldn't ever voice their opinions on the necessity of a post-bathroom cleansing session. However, the answer is most likely "HELL YES," considering the genius Japanese electronic bidets that are rising in popularity around the world. (See, also, the "Everything Man" episode of Cougar Town.) "Washlet toilets are amazing and everywhere [in Japan]," Popper says. "They're equipped with bidets, sprayers, dryers, heaters... Some even play music. The washlet toilet is one of my favorite things about Japan."

South Korea

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With K-beauty all the rage right now, South Korea offers some interesting bathing practices to incorporate into our own daily cleansing routines. One of the best authorities to consult is Charlotte Cho, cofounder and curator of everything K-beauty at Soko Glam, author of The Little Book of Skin Care, and New York certified aesthetician. While spending five years living in Seoul after college, the California native found that South Koreans' shower and hair-washing habits don't deviate much from Americans', but full-body exfoliation is an integral part of the experience. Their go-to scrub: a rough and very effective washcloth-like tool called an Italy towel. "They call it Italy towel because it's a type of exfoliating material that was produced in Italy," Cho says. "They brought it to Korea in the '60s, and the name stuck."

Enjoying an intense scrub at the communal sauna is an essential part of South Korean culture. Cho discusses the experience in detail (and with humor) in a chapter of her book, aptly titled "The Magic of Exfoliation." At the sauna or spa, patrons either have a family member slough off all that dead skin or hire an employee to do the honors. But either way, the scrubee wears nothing during the process. "The act of being completely naked in front of your peers, your family, is completely normal," says Cho, as patrons of Spa Castle in New York or Wi Spa in Los Angeles know quite well.

Considering Korea's close proximity to Japan, the electronic washlets are very popular -- seen everywhere from people's homes to the office. While most South Koreans may not openly discuss post-bathroom hygiene, they definitely make use of those fabulous hi-tech bidets. "When I was working at Samsung, [I knew] everyone was using them because you could hear the squirting of the water [in the public restroom]," says Cho. "I [used to think] it was disgusting to use a bidet, but after using it I was disgusted at myself that I [had] just started to use one."

For the rest of the piece, visit Refinery29.

By: Fawnia Soo Hoo

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