21 Horrible Hygiene Habits From the Past

When it comes to our ancestors, just because they were older, doesn’t mean they were wiser. This is especially true when it comes to the hygiene habits of the past. Before modern medicine and hygiene practices were established, people did some pretty questionable things when it came to their cleanliness.

From downright foul cleaning methods to dangerous home remedies, here are some of the worst hygiene habits from the past.

Unwashed hands served as your spoon and fork

Getty Images/Forbes

In many cultures today, using hands while eating is still a normal thing. However, anyone partaking in finger foods knows to wash their hands first.

Back in the old times, hands were often used as utensils as well. The difference? People didn’t know about germs, and clean water was hard to come by, so hands were often pretty dirty when people sat down for a meal!

The king’s most intimate servant

Wikimedia Commons

Living like a king has more perks than you’d think, especially back when royalty had servants called “Grooms of the Stool.” This job entailed assisting a designated royal during bathroom breaks, even during “number 2” cases. 

While this may seem like an unflattering job, the Grooms of the Stool were actually treated with high respect and sophistication, since they were trusted to be present with the monarchy during their most intimate times.

Everybody shared the same bathwater

Stanley Fox/Bower Boys History

Since running water was pretty scarce up until a couple hundred years ago, people would often attend public baths when wanting to clean themselves. Unfortunately, with everyone bathing in the same water, and the bath water rarely being changed, you wouldn’t be getting as clean as you’d think.

One wig with lice, please!

The Vintage News

One very noticeable thing about portraits of the past is all the enormous wigs. What wasn’t shown in the near-perfect paintings were the lice and insects that often accompanied these hair pieces!

Having lice on wigs was actually preferable back then, as opposed to having them in your real hair. This is because removing lice from wigs just required a quick boiling, while on real hair, the removal process was a lot more extensive.

The cursed holes dug in the backyard

University of Birmingham

What were septic tanks like before there were efficient drainage systems? Well, they came in the form of cesspits, which were large holes dug in people’s backyards. Staying open year-round without any covering or lid, people would just dump their waste in these holes on a daily basis. Gross!

Mouse skin eyebrows were a top beauty hack

Judy Deluca

If the idea of “beauty hacks” existed in the past, the mouse skin eyebrow trend was definitely on the list. To make up for worrying hair loss due to lead-based skin products, women used eyebrow-shaped mouse skin to make it seem like they had bushier brows!

Leaves, corn cobs, and more were used as toilet paper

Getty Images

More than we’ll ever know, toilet paper is a modern luxury. Ever wondered what the world was like before these rolls were invented? Obviously, people still survived, yet they had to rely on whatever they could find to wipe themselves, whether it was leaves, corn cobs, sticks, or even seashells and dull pieces of broken pottery. Doesn’t sound very comfortable or sanitary, does it?

This hair-regrowing technique stunk!

Getty Images

As it turns out, balding wasn’t always favorable back in the olden days either. One of the most famous “cures” for baldness was rubbing a mixture of potassium and chicken droppings on one’s head. We can only imagine what that smelled like! Thankfully hair loss is embraced much more today, and the balding treatments available now are far less smelly.

Portable toilets…inside your room

Wikimedia Commons

Portable toilets sound so appealing when you consider their convenience: no more trekking down the hall late at night when you need to go!

In centuries past, many larger homes had portable toilets (known as chamber pots) in their bedrooms so that they wouldn’t have to walk all the way out to the outhouse to use the bathroom. While chamber pots were kept out of sight, and servants cleaned and emptied them regularly, the convenience didn’t necessarily outweigh the scent.

Just one outfit for each season!

Royal UK

There are only four seasons in a year at a maximum in certain parts of the world, and so before the standardization of clothing making, many people often only had one outfit per season. This was mostly for the common folk, as clothing making was expensive and time-consuming, which meant the rich and royal classes had a few more garments to their names.

However, most people didn’t wash their clothes but once a month or so. This, combined with people’s lack of regular bathing, meant everybody smelled a bit musty.

Doctors didn’t practice good hygiene for centuries

Getty Images

Until the discovery of germs, doctors didn’t fully understand the ramifications of sterilizing themselves, or their patients, before performing surgeries and other medical procedures. This meant that as long as there wasn’t visible dirt, things were considered clean and no washing was needed!

Urine was a common part of skincare

Getty Images/Yahoo

You might have heard that people in the past used urine as an antiseptic. Well, because of its believed disinfecting properties and the scarcity of clean, running water, people also used urine to wash their faces. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that urine isn’t sterile, and once it’s left the body, it can quickly become infested with bacteria and other germs.

People would lose hair and teeth at the barber’s

Pall Mall Barbers

Back in the olden days, a barber’s list of services was quite long. Considered multi-skilled professionals of all things grooming (and before dentists became popular), one’s barber would handle everything from haircuts to teeth removal. Thankfully, we’ve learned since that it’s best not to mix hair care and dental care.

Burning your wounds…to make them heal faster

Wikimedia Commons

What’s more painful than a heavily bleeding wound? The way it was cured in the middle ages. Back then, especially during times of war, one of the fastest and most efficient ways of healing wounds was to cauterize them with a hot iron.

While medical professionals today use cauterizing to a much smaller extent, back in the day people would often suffer from burns larger than their original wounds. This, along with no sterile creams or ointments, could lead to infections and more harm than good.

Healthy teeth for sale!

Creekstone Dental

Since sugar was once a luxury item only available to the rich, and dental hygiene wasn’t very popular, oftentimes wealthy people had rotten teeth. Their solution? Buy a poor person’s healthy teeth and make them into dentures!

Thankfully since then, toothbrushes and floss are much more common, and if someone still really needs dentures, they can be made out of synthetic materials instead.

Doctors often used dirty instruments

Jonathan Borba/Unsplash

Surgeries are meant to make life last longer. But, one can just imagine all the infections that happened over the centuries when doctors didn’t know to properly sterilize their tools. Sure, visibly bloodied or otherwise dirty equipment would get some washing or polishing, but no one knew that germs were still lingering undetected on the surface!

Feeling sick? Let’s stick some leeches on you!

Science History Institute

Leeches have been used throughout history for a number of medical and cosmetic purposes. Typically, doctors would use leeches to suck out any “contaminated” blood in a sick patient. Unfortunately, these medical professionals didn’t realize that this only resulted in increased blood loss, which would weaken the patient and sometimes only aid their death instead of their recovery.

Toothache? Pretty sure those are tooth worms

Wikimedia Commons

Feeling sick because of an aching tooth? Long ago, dentists believed that toothaches were caused by tooth worms, since rotting teeth would have visible holes (similar to a worm burrowing through an apple or other fruit).

To “chase away” these worms, dentists would pump a beeswax-based smoke into a person’s mouth, and then seal the hole(s) with a gummy substance mixed with narcotics. Seems like a messy and temporary solution to a bigger dental problem!

The most effective face lightener…with poison as a catch

Wikimedia Commons

During the 16th century, makeup foundations came in the form of “Venetian ceruse.” While it sounds fancy, it was just a name for white lead mixed with vinegar, which is extremely poisonous. What’s worse, washing off dirt and makeup at the end of the day wasn’t common, meaning women would be piling this poisonous substance on their faces day after day without taking it off!

The secret ingredient to voluptuous wigs


Ever wondered what’s inside those enormous wigs? Well, before hairspray was invented in the early 1900s, wig makers used animal fat mixed with wheat flour or dried white clay to make wigs stand up tall and firm. While this served to hide hair loss and or show off one’s stylish upper status, the less-than-ideal odor from the animal fat couldn’t have been pleasant.


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