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.
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
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.
Showering Is Accomplished By Using A Mixture Of Rinseless Soap And WaterVideo: YouTube
Showering in space is more or less like applying lotion to your skin. Astronauts use a pouch that contains a mixture of "rinseless" soap and water. It is the same kind of soap used in hospitals for patients who are unable to shower. It is also the same mixture and method that astronauts use to wash their hands.
An astronaut shower is more like a sponge bath than an earthbound shower with running water. They squeeze out a portion of the soap/water mixture and rub it onto their bodies. Whatever water is left in the air is repurposed by the spacecraft.
Unsurprisingly, the one thing astronauts miss the most while on a space mission is running water. It is a luxury that we take for granted. Imagine not showering for months. Jennifer Levasseur, who is a curator in the Museum’s Space History Department, said that many astronauts from the ISS describe the odor of the space station as having a "lived-in smell."
Dirtied Clothing Is Thrown Out So It Can Burn Up In The Earth's Atmosphere
There are no laundry machines for astronauts up in space; they would use way too much water. So how do space travelers keep their clothes clean?
There is no magical solution or way to wash clothes in space. Some space missions can last for months or longer, so there isn't a lot of extra room for clothes. Therefore, astronauts must wear their clothes for as long as possible - basically until the smell gets to be too much to bear. At the ISS, astronauts are told to wear their underwear about a week before changing it.
Once a garment has reached its maximum tolerable stink level, astronauts throw out their clothes with the spacecraft's other waste. The garbage is placed in a vessel, which burns up once it reenters the Earth's atmosphere.