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What Is Hygiene Like For Astronauts In Space?

Hollywood often paints a romanticized vision of space travel, but living in a gravity-free environment has dirty downsides. It takes a lot of extra work for an astronaut to tend to their personal hygiene in space. Sometimes, they're even instructed to do some not-so-sanitary things, like wear the same pair of underwear for a week.

When thinking about hygiene in space, the first thing to consider is that there are no showers or sinks. Gravity makes common earthly devices like sinks totally impractical. Think about it: water falls down a faucet and into a drain. In space, the water would float away - and ultimately endanger both an astronaut’s health and a spacecraft’s expensive equipment. 

So, what is hygiene like for astronauts in space? Some astronauts live on the International Space Station (ISS) for months at a time. Without gravity, how do they brush their teeth, go to the bathroom, or take a shower? 

Read all about astronaut hygiene below. It'll make you extremely thankful that you can take an actual shower any time you want.

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  • Hair Is Washed Using Shampoo, A Towel, And A Comb - But Little To No Water
    Video: YouTube

    Hair Is Washed Using Shampoo, A Towel, And A Comb - But Little To No Water

    The whole zero gravity thing makes standard sinks and showers completely pointless in space. The water would float away instead of flowing down a faucet. In order to wash their hair, an astronaut uses a waterless shampoo that does not require rinsing and does not produce foam. Some water may be used to aid the process via direct application to the scalp, but it must be carefully dried with a towel afterward to prevent damage to equipment.

    If they brush their hair, an astronaut needs to be careful of any stray hairs that float away. Stray hairs can potentially get into an astronaut's eyes or be inhaled into their lungs.

  •  Using The Bathroom Requires Leg Straps And A Vacuum
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Using The Bathroom Requires Leg Straps And A Vacuum

    On average, it takes an astronaut about ten extra minutes to use the restroom. Astronauts even have to go through space's version of potty training to make sure they are doing all the necessary steps.

    First, an astronaut must secure themselves to the toilet seat using special straps on their legs to make sure they do not float away. If they plan to urinate, the astronaut uses a personal urination funnel, which is attached to a hose on the wall and works like a vacuum. The vacuum's fan sucks up the liquid and dumps it into a tank. 

    If the astronaut has to defecate, they need to put a special bag inside the toilet to hold the waste. Next, they use a vacuum to contain the waste and a fan to freshen the air. The closed bag is stored underneath the toilet until it can be safely disposed of.

  • Dental Hygiene Practices Are Essentially Identical To Those On Earth
    Video: YouTube

    Dental Hygiene Practices Are Essentially Identical To Those On Earth

    Brushing your teeth is perhaps even more important in space than on planet Earth. Due to atmospheric changes on a spacecraft, a cavity has the potential to be even more painful. 

    Dental equipment is just about the same in space; an astronaut uses a regular toothbrush and toothpaste. However, they do not have a sink, and therefore no running water. To brush their teeth, a space station is rigged with tiny pieces of velcro that hold capless toothpaste tubes for easy application. An astronaut can wet their toothbrush by using a straw in a water bag.

    Without a sink to spit in after they're done brushing, an astronaut either swallows the toothpaste (it's edible) or spits into a washcloth. 

  • Many Crew Members Bring Personal Hygiene Kits

    Just like you would bring a toiletry bag on vacation, every astronaut is given a personal hygiene kit before taking off on a space mission. The kit includes everything that a space traveler will need to keep clean during their time away from Earth.

    These kits feature all the hygiene basics like deodorant, soap, hairbrush, toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss, shavers, body cream, and lip balm. Astronauts can even select which brands of items they prefer to use. 

  • Female Crew Members Receive An Additional Hygiene Kit

    In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space. To prepare for her flight, NASA asked how many tampons she would need in her personal hygiene kit for the week-long mission. They asked if 100 tampons would be enough. Ride sarcastically informed them that half that amount would be just fine. 

    To further illustrate NASA's unfamiliarity with female crewmembers, engineers added a full makeup assortment to their female astronaut's personal hygiene kit - figuring women would want to put on makeup during their space mission. The prototype for the kit included all the cosmetic basics like eye shadow, blush, mascara, and eyeliner. Eventually, it was determined those items were not necessary.

    In 2018, NASA's History Office sent out a tweet honoring 1978, the landmark year that finally gave female astronauts the opportunity to travel into space. The tweet featured a direct quote from Ride joking about NASA's makeup kit:

    The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup - so they designed a makeup kit. You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit.

  • Solid Waste Is Burned Up In The Atmosphere
    Photo: Crew of Expedition 22 (NASA) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Solid Waste Is Burned Up In The Atmosphere

    Today, NASA has the filtration technology to recycle urine into safe drinking water. However, solid waste is not yet recyclable. So, what do they do with fecal matter? After an astronaut produces solid waste, it is sucked up into a sealed bag underneath the toilet. The actual toilet does not look like the typical household loo; it's actually just a metallic base that has a suction feature. 

    The airtight sealed bag is stored in a tank with other trash until the tank is full. The waste is then placed in an unpiloted ship and sent into space. The spacecraft is ultimately burned up in the atmosphere upon reentry. 

    Could there be a day in the future when fecal matter is recycled as well? Perhaps. Researchers are currently trying to figure out ways to utilize solid human waste. One idea is to use fecal matter to line the walls of a spacecraft to protect astronauts from toxic cosmic rays.