Teen Hygiene Issues: Tips for the School Counselor

Although it was old and sterile, I was so proud of our my dorm. It was exciting to be away from home for the first time and more exciting to have three other suite mates! Over time, my excitement about living with three other girls began to diminish as I noticed we all had different ideas about cleanliness. Unfortunately, our biggest point of contention was the bathroom the four of us shared.  Earlier in the semester, we all decided to take a week and keep the bathroom clean. When it was my week, I took cleaning the bathroom very seriously. My roommate, who was just as phobic about cleaning as me, made it her goal to have a clean bathroom during her week.  Then there were the suitemates...well, let's say they were not as dedicated.  Imagine, if you will, a bath tub at the end of the week with four girls bathing twice a day using hair products, baby oil, body wash, shower gel, and shaving cream.  Well, let's say it was not pretty.  Not able to take the filth, my roommate and I broke down and cleaned that disgusting bathroom during our off weeks.  Following the months of cleaning, I became known as "Miss Clean."

Four girls in a bathroom...yuck!
Seems that my suite was not the only one facing hygiene issues.  Brewing next door was a problem between two girls, who were best friends, and another girl who lived in her room alone.  The lone girl seemed a little different from the rest of us. She lived a long way from home, she never went home on the weekends, and she rarely spoke of her family.  Physically she was very plain, rarely washed her hair, and wore the same plaid shirt day after day. Although she was different, we made an effort to include her in our social activities. One of our favorite activities was to watch our soap opera every afternoon.  One particular day, we were watching our show and the girl did not show up.  After the show was over (no one dared to talk during the show), we inquired about her whereabouts. One of the best friends chimed, "She had to study today, but I am glad she couldn't come. She has worn that same jacket all week and has a terrible body odor."  After sitting quietly for a minute, I opened my big mouth and put my proverbial foot in it. "You know someone really should tell her that she needs to wash her jacket and her hair."  Immediately, all eyes turned to me and one of the friends smiled and said,  "Great idea! You would be great helping someone clean up." Suddenly it was unanimous that I would represent the group by informing the girl about her bad hygiene.

As a helper, I considered it my duty to enlighten our neighbor about her hygiene issues.  After several days of putting off the conversation, I finally found myself alone with her in my dorm watching music videos.  Nervously, I sat watching the new Sting solo video and commented on how I wished that the Police had never broken up.  Okay, I thought...it is now or never. Finally I looked at the girl, expressed that her body odor was not pleasant to other people, and told her that she needed to do a better job at cleaning her hair and clothes.  After taking in what I said, she acknowledged that she needed to take care of herself better.  Yes, go me! At that moment, I was so proud of myself!! However, my feelings of success were short lived.   During one of our afternoon soap opera times, everyone was gathered in our suite as usual.  All of the sudden a smell permeated the room of perfume and body odor.  Someone yelled, "Who is wearing that perfume?!"  Slowly, all eyes turned to the girl. Innocently she looked at the group and said,  "Do you guys like my new perfume? Cindy suggested that I wear it." 

Scientist have found that perfume
enhances body odor
Okay, as you see this situation did not go so well.  Unfortunately, just because I was chosen as the right person to talk to the girl doesn't necessarily make me the best person.  The problem was that the girl needed a lot more than attention, assistance, and education than I could give her.  In fact, she could have really benefitted from all of us working with her.  Actually, hygiene is a process of education, information, practice, and  reevaluation.  Although I was elected to "fix" her problem, I was not the answer to her hygiene issue. 

Student hygiene must be taught
Fast forward to my days as school counselor.  One day a teacher comes to me about a freshman with hygiene issues and she tells me that someone (me) should speak to him about what to do to stop his body odor.  Immediately, my school counselor super powers go into action!  "Sure! I will see what I can do."  Before I called the student into my office, I had a flashback to the day I spoke to the girl.  Wait...what are you doing?  You may not be the best person for this job.  I really started to think about who were the right people to help this student. Just because I am the school counselor doesn't always mean that I have all the answers; however, I may be part of the solution.

Teen Hygiene

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hormonal changes between the ages of 8-14 in girls and 9-14 in boys are the biggest causes of body odor.  Other factors like sweat, dirty clothing, tight clothing, food choices, failure to bathe regularly, dirty bedding, poor hygiene, smoking, and drug use, can make body odor unpleasant for other students and staff who are in close proximity. 

What are the Top Reasons that Teens Stink

1.  Bad breathe caused by lack of brushing, tooth decay, or gum infections.
2.  Body odor from pheromones to sexually attract or repel others, toxins that the body is trying to expel like alcohol or food, and bacteria from dead skin.
3.  Foot odor
4.  Odor from private areas

Sadly, if a student does not learn good hygiene by elementary school, he or she may have a difficult time in middle and high school. Dr. Ken Shore believes that educators must not ignore hygiene issues as it can often lead to teasing and bullying.  So what can a school counselor do?  I found a blog post by Jessica Jones Walters, Musing of a Middle School Counselor, who gave some great tips on how to help students with their hygiene issues. In addition, I added a few suggestions by Dr. Shore who provides some steps that schools can take to help students with this delicate and often ignored subject.

Tips for Working with Students on Hygiene

1. Learn what hygiene education is being taught to your students before 9th grade. 

2. Be aware of any cultural differences of the student you are working with as his or her ideas of hygiene may be different than your own.

3. Provide interesting educational videos and pamphlets for students.  See the following videos below.

How to Maintain Good Hygiene

Hygiene for Girls

Helping your peers with hygiene issues

Great ally!
 4. Team up with other staff members like the school nurse, coaches, school social worker, assistant principals, and health teachers to create a protocol for working with students on hygiene issues.

5.  Always talk to students independently about their hygiene issues and probe about their routines. Tell them that your goal is not to embarrass, but to help them to solve the problem.

6. If the problem originates at home (cigarette smoke, dirty clothes, lack of water), provide a way for the student to clean at school.  Honestly, I have gone to the special education classroom to use the washing machine and dryer to wash students' clothes. Also, utilize your school social worker as he or she can make a home visit and educate parents about the importance of hygiene and cleanliness.  This can be helpful in working with immigrant families that may not be familiar with deodorant and daily baths.

7. Provide students with a checklist of essential hygiene activities and check in with them to see how they are working.

8. Think about incorporating teen educators to help students with teen hygiene issues.

9. Work with the school nurse to contact parents when there may be a medical concern for the body odor. 

10. Work with the school nurse, social worker, and coaches to create and distribute hygiene kits for males and females.


Hopefully, practicing these tips will help you feel more comfortable when you find yourself asked to work with student hygiene issues.

Additional Resources

Education World

Seventeen Health Quiz for Teens

Classroom Caboodle: Talking to Students About Hygiene

Communicating with Teens About Hygiene

Teen Survivial Guide by Girl's Heath


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