Keeping clean and healthy when you travel isn’t always easy so these travel personal hygiene tips are simply reminders of what we already know – but sometimes forget to at our peril.
DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not a doctor, and none of this is medical advice. I have traveled for 50 years to nearly 100 countries and have gained some experience on what works or doesn’t work for me. I share that experience in this series of articles, which can be your starting point for research. But when it comes to actual prevention, treatment and care, ALWAYS consult a qualified medical practitioner.
These hygiene tips for women travelers will help keep you clean and fresh while you’re on the road, and that means keeping you healthy, too. (Men have all their own cleanliness issues, but this page is for and about women.)
1. The most obvious tip of all: stay clean
This is simple, but it isn’t always easy. Clean water isn’t available everywhere, nor is a clean room or environment. Those of us from wealthier countries are more accustomed to these amenities than many of our friends in poorer countries.
Good feminine hygiene is important everywhere, but even more so in the tropics, where bacteria thrive, infections take hold with a vengeance, and English-speaking doctors may be scarce.
2. Wash your hands – the easiest way to stay clean while traveling
Staying clean and healthy while traveling is mostly a question of common sense and most infections are caught by touching dirty objects.
Always wash after using the toilet, before and after handling a tampon or pad, and after touching an animal. Wash before eating, and where possible after touching anything everyone else touches (public phone, ATM, public computer keyboard, door handles, shopping trolleys…).
3. Clean your nails and keep them short
This doesn’t mean you’ll have to swear off mani-pedis but consider your destination. If you’re heading to Europe or to a major urban center, this isn’t something you’ll have to worry about quite so much. But if you are going to a place where cleanliness isn’t the rule, keeping your nails short means giving dirt and bacteria fewer places to hide.
4. Always use sandals or thongs when taking a shower that’s shared
You don’t know who was in that shower before you, especially if you happen to be in a hostel or sharing a bathroom, which may sometimes happen during your travels.
5. Be careful what you share
Infections can spread easily so beware of sharing such things as towels, even face towels. It will be a rare place indeed that won’t have enough individual towels for everyone but if you have the slightest doubt, consider taking a travel towel with you.
6. Keep body odor at bay
If you’re on a short journey, your regular stick or roll-on deodorant will do but if you’re far from a shop, use your talcum powder (sparingly, as it’s not healthy) or wash as often as you can.
7. Decide whether you’ll be shaving
To shave or not to shave? This question has fueled many a discussion on travel forums. But first, understand that that in many countries, body hair on women isn’t perceived as repulsive at all.
If you’re in relatively unhygienic situations, shaving regularly makes little sense. Take a razor if you feel strongly about it and shave for special occasions. In many countries leg and underarm hair is taken care of by waxing. Try it if your hair isn’t too thick – you won’t need to do it often because less of it grows back each time.
8. Be especially cautious when eating
The only thing worse than infection by touching is infection by swallowing. Make sure your food is safe before you eat it. In other words, don’t eat anything that might not have been refrigerated properly, cooked properly or cleaned properly.
Bear in mind that food poisoning can happen anywhere, not just in poorer countries.
9. Follow these feminine hygiene tips
Always have something to clean yourself: a roll of toilet paper, some paper towels, a small packet of wet hygienic towelettes. If you’ve run out and you’re stuck in nature, use twigs, moss, smooth stones or leaves – just make sure they’re not prickly.
10. Keep your urinary tract healthy
Don’t avoid water just because you’re scared you might not find a toilet!
To avoid cystitis or other painful conditions, drink plenty of water, urinate whenever you need to, always wipe from front to back to avoid bacteria entering the urinary tract from the rectum into the vagina, and drink plenty of cranberry juice (if you’re in a country where it exists). To be on the safe side, carry some cranberry capsules or medicine that has worked for you.
11. Prevent overheating, chafing and dampness
If you’re traveling somewhere warm and humid, make sure you wear light, airy clothes or layers.
Yeast likes heat and dampness, and women on the pill are particularly susceptible to yeast infections. Use cotton underwear if fear of infection is a reality. To prevent infection, make sure you dry your vaginal area thoroughly after washing, stick to loose, cotton underwear that breathes easily, and eat yoghurt when you can. Avoid scented products, including pads and sprays, as these can irritate you. If you’re prone to yeast infections, pack along the ingredients for a natural or herbal douche.
If you’re worried about staying clean, take some personal wipes with you and change panty pads often.
Products that prevent chafing exist, although I would go easy on these and use them only when there aren’t any alternatives. There’s always talcum powder, which is effective, but which may (in heavy doses) be unhealthy. I still use it, but very sparingly.
Keep your feet, underarms and areas under your breasts clean.
12. Dealing with going to the bathroom
Among the most important travel personal hygiene tips are those related to relieving yourself. If you need to pee in the middle of the night, you might consider one of the many made-for-women peeing funnels, which are used by female racers on the grueling Iditarod dogsled race. It has a short tube that allows you to pee standing up or into a small, well-marked bottle.
This is particularly important if you’re the ‘getting up often at night’ type and you’re somewhere with poor or no sanitation. Just try it at home first – this isn’t the kind of experimenting you want to do surrounded by interested parties.
I have several friends who have one of these and they seem happy with them. I’ve never used one, preferring instead to wear a loose sarong and follow other women into the fields. I wouldn’t recommend my approach for beginners though – it does take some time to learn to squat elegantly and practically – and safely.
On a long bus trip from Maputo to Beira in Mozambique, our bus stopped halfway for a loo break. I had never seen a toilet quite this disgusting: feces all over the floor and on the walls, with maggots and worms squirming throughout. Unfortunately we were in the middle of a village with no field in which to squat. At least the sarong allowed me some freedom. But one of those peeing funnels might have been handy too.
13. When there is no clean water available
If soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. But what about the rest of your body? If you’re heading somewhere basic hygiene is in doubt, consider taking along some no-rinse products, such as this no-rinse body wash and shampoo.
14. Don’t assume you’ll find women hygiene products everywhere
Carry an adequate supply of panty pads, if you use them, particularly if you are going to a rural area where they might not be available easily.
15. Protect yourself with travel insurance
A final recommendation: make sure you have some solid travel insurance in case this feminine hygiene advice simply isn’t enough to keep you clean and healthy. If you’re under 70, I recommend World Nomads, which I’ve used for years. After 70, here are a number of insurance companies that will keep you well covered.
— Originally published on 16 September 2011