DEAR COUNSELLOR: Approaching someone about their hygiene

Dr Karelle Hytlon, PhD Counselling

Dear counsellor,
I am currently in grade nine and I have a schoolmate who persons have been deliberately avoiding because of an odour issue. The odour is quite offensive and no one is willing to approach her to have the matter addressed. She is very aggressive and disrespectful, and persons are afraid of her. Teachers do not seem to notice and, therefore, nothing is done. As a young girl myself, I believe that we should be our brother’s/sister’s keeper and help each other. I am not friends with this girl, and we are not in the same class, so I do not want to be embarrassed by her, but I would like to help her. How do I approach this young girl without negative consequences?
F.A.

Dear F.A.,
Personal hygiene is a sensitive matter, especially for teenagers. The hormonal changes encountered by teenagers often contribute to teen body-odour problems. During puberty, the sweat glands (apocrine gland) become more active and the sweaty regions of the body, like the armpits or scalp, start producing a fatty form of sweat. This oily sweat can easily attract bacteria which break down the sweat particles and produce an unpleasant odour from the body of teens. Another possible reason for body odour in teens is poor hygiene; a teen who is not maintaining proper hygienic habits, like taking a shower (at least twice daily) or not brushing his/her teeth regularly, can often suffer from bad odour problems.

Teenagers ought to ensure that they take a shower every morning before leaving for school, paying special attention to under the arms, genital area, between the toes, and behind the ears. Girls need to wash their hair at least once weekly. It is highly recommended that teens use an antiperspirant deodorant and shave underarm to reduce odour. Female teens also ought to be more careful and practise proper hygiene, especially during menstruation. It is quite possible, also, that some teens may have an illness that may be contributing to the body odour. If odour persists after all proper hygiene activities have been carried out, then it is recommended that one seek medical attention.

The foods we eat also contribute to body odour. It is highly recommended that teens drink at least eight glasses of water daily, consume vegetables and fruits, and reduce the intake of spicy and oily foods. The regular changing of socks, undergarments, for example, merino and inner shirts, will also help in the reduction of odour in teens.

When we address anyone who presents with body odour, we always have to be careful how the issue is brought to the person’s awareness. We ought to be sensitive in what is said, where it is said, and how it is said. Our main focus is on reducing embarrassment and helping the person to improve the situation. It is my suggestion, therefore, that you ask for the intervention of either the school nurse or your guidance counsellor; ask him or her to talk with the person. I would not suggest that you take the responsibility of talking with this young lady on your own, as you have indicated that “she is aggressive and disrespectful and that persons are afraid of her,” and I would not want either of you to make the issues more difficult than it may already be.

What you may do is talk to your peers about the issue of personal hygiene, and about the steps you take to ensure that you are practising proper hygiene. It may also be helpful if you can form a social club within the school that collects and distributes personal-care items to less fortunate students – a self-care kit that has all the necessary personal items. Launch a public education campaign in your school (with the assistance of your guidance counsellor and/or school nurse); present it in a general manner and this will go a far way in ensuring that no one feels targeted or embarrassed. You may even invite companies that produce personal hygiene products to partner with you in helping teens manage their personal hygiene.
All the very best.

Dr Karelle Hytlon, PhD Counselling Psychologist karelle_hylton@yahoo.com

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