The definition of "clean" is extremely relative.
Hygiene standards vary throughout the world, and they've changed drastically throughout
Baths were only a weekly occurrence for most people even just a century ago.
What people further back in history did to stay clean is even stranger.
Here are weird things the ancients thought about cleaning.
The ancient Romans left behind a ton of writing, and they weren't shy about their habits.
The poet Catullus once wrote about how nice it was to brush your teeth with urine, for
According to the Smithsonian, the ammonia in urine acted as a bleaching agent, leading
to those oh-so-desirable pearly whites.
It's possible they refined the urine into ammonia before putting it in their mouths.
Archaeologists are still learning about what went on in Rome's public baths.
According to researchers from the University of Iowa, artifacts recovered from pool drains
included plenty of perfume vials, oil flasks, and nail cleaners, among other things, including
There were enough teeth that they think Romans were going to baths for socializing, pampering,
and some dentistry at the same time.
The Romans had to find ways to keep those clothes clean, too.
And just like for their teeth, the ammonia in urine was how they kept their whites white
and their colors bright.
William Smith described the process in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and it makes
doing laundry today look easy.
Most Romans wore wool, and given how hot it is in Italy, their clothes needed a lot of
An ancient Roman laundromat was called a fullonica, and it was staffed by fullones.
It was their job to stomp on clothes in vats of liquid to wash them; that liquid was most
commonly a mix of animal and human urine.
Collecting all that urine was a part of the fullones' job, too.
Most often, they would stand on street corners with buckets, hoping passers-by would take
the opportunity to relieve themselves.
After washing, white clothes would be further whitened by being hung in a basket over sulfur
fumes, further proving that history smelled absolutely terrible.
People have always tried to take care of their teeth to avoid dentists, or in the earliest
cases, having to ask their neighbor to knock a molar out with a rock.
Mankind had pretty decent teeth until farming and carbs were common, but people living in
Sudan around 2,000 years ago had shockingly great teeth.
Only about 1 percent of them had cavities or signs of tooth decay, and it wasn't until
2014 that researchers figured out why.
It wasn't urine!
According to National Geographic, their fine chompers were a consequence of chewing on
one of the most noxious, invasive weeds in the world: nutsedge.
Dr. Mark Schonbeck of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming says it's native to
tropical Eurasia but has since spread around the world; not a good thing for native plants.
It's an invasive pest, but modern humans could take a page out of the book of the ancients.
Modern research has found that the extracts released when purple nutsedge is chewed destroy
the same bacteria that causes cavities and tooth decay.
There's one catch:
"It tastes terrible."
Researchers are pretty sure people weren't chewing it for the flavor, but knew it had
medicinal benefits, though they maybe weren't aware of its dental perks.
Around 3,000 years ago, people living in China were developing methods of using plant ash
to remove the toughest grease stains.
According to The Epoch Times, for a long time, the water left over from cooking rice would
be used for bathing, but by around 420 CE, bathing beans were more commonly used.
They were made from all sorts of things, and according to the writings of a Sui and Tang
dynasty doctor named Sun Simiao, pig pancreas was a common ingredient.
After draining the blood from the pancreas, it was mixed with plaster, bean powder, and
The resulting "bean" was used for both skin and clothing, and would have been mostly recognizable
to us as soap, even down to the foaming action.
Sun Simiao recommended different ingredients for people of different statuses.
The higher your status, the more ingredients your bath bean would have had.
His Supplement to the formula of a Thousand Gold Worth listed a ton of different combinations,
and some had dozens of ingredients.
With that many combinations, it's not entirely surprising that some of them were caustic,
proof that just because it makes suds doesn't mean you should wash face with it.
The smell of sulfur dioxide is unmistakable: hot, rotten eggs.
And it's harmful.
The Australian government says the chemical causes respiratory damage.
"I can't breathe."
But it wasn't always considered a health hazard.
In ancient Greece and many cultures that followed, it was used to purify homes.
The first mention of it comes from Homer's Odyssey.
When Odysseus kills some rivals, he asks their home be purified by burning sulfur inside
so the house is fit for less-horrible people.
Burning sulfur was a widespread practice, and this stinky gas was used for lots of different
In India, it was burned in rooms were operations and surgeries were to be performed to purify
It was still used during the Middle Ages, too; sulfur was burned in homes and buildings
were residents had died from the plague or other diseases.
The logic was strange: Scholars think it started when people observed sulfur fumes killing
plants and small animals, so they figured it must kill other tiny things, too.
To be fair, they weren't entirely wrong.
It was just harming them, too.
A little elbow grease goes a long way, right?
Sure, but in antiquity, they were talking about literal grease.
According to the J. Paul Getty Museum, ancient Greco-Roman athletes cleaned up in a counterintuitive
way: Before they headed off for a more traditional bath, they scrubbed up with oil and an abrasive.
Sand and ground pumice were common, and once they were covered with that oily mess, they'd
scrape it off with a curved tool called a strigil.
Both men and women did it, and it was one of the most important tools in any athlete's
They'd usually oil themselves up before heading to the gym, and once they were done, they'd
clean off the worst of the oil, sweat, dirt, and blood with the strigil.
It actually gets worse.
According to Health and Fitness History, everyone used a strigil, but the muck athletes scraped
off themselves was thought to be extra special, with a sort of medicinal power.
It was often saved and used as an ingredient in salves and poultices, so regular folks
could gain a little athletic talent by osmosis, presumably.
It's easy to forget how modern of an invention toilet paper is.
"And this...is toilet paper!"
The idea has been around since at least 14th-century China, according to ABC, but it took centuries
it to catch on.
Two-ply only showed up in the 1940s, and it was advertised as something everyone should
probably use by the 1960s.
So what happened before that?
Colonial Americans used corncobs.
Old newspapers and catalogs were popular options in the early 1900s.
Ancient Rome has perhaps the most questionable method, and it's worth keeping in mind that
they had very public toilets.
Archaeologist Stephen E. Nash writes in Sapiens that researchers know a lot about Roman toilet
habits thanks to the facilities and frescoes preserved in volcanic ash in Pompeii, including
illustrations of the tersorium: a Roman-era sea sponge on a stick, which people would
use to wipe themselves after doing their business.
And no, people didn't carry their own personal sponges with them.
They were just as public as the toilets.
If running water wasn't handy, buckets of salt water and vinegar would be left by the
toilets, so people could rinse off the sponges before leaving them for the next person.
Let's be glad most movies and TV shows about ancient Rome left that part out.
This might have been interesting to include, though: In the 1960s, archaeologists were
excavating ancient Roman sites in England, and when they got to the toilets, they uncovered
small, stone disks called pessoi.
They were originally thought to be game pieces, but further research and the common Greek
saying, "Three stones are enough to wipe" suggest they were actually a sort of reusable
And that's not all.
According to Scientific American, some of the pessoi started out as ostraca, broken
pieces of ceramic that people would etch with the names of other people they just didn't
They were usually used in voting to banish someone from town.
Later, it looks like they were recycled and used to clean up after using the toilet.
How satisfying must it have been to use stones etched with the names of your enemies to clean
up after a visit to the throne?
A lot of hygiene jokes have been mean-spiritedly directed toward the French, and according
to a study published in Chicago Journals, there's a historic, cultural reason for that
particular longstanding stereotype.
After large areas of France were destroyed during World War II, French leaders even called
for a much-needed "hygiene revolution" as the country's cities were rebuilt and restored.
Before that, laundry days happened maybe twice a year, and it was believed that a good day
of hard labor was all the cleaning the body needed.
The stronger a person's body odor, the healthier they were thought to be.
The French lower classes held dirt and sweat in the highest regard.
"You've given our house permanent B.O.!
Put it outside!"
The upper classes had a different philosophy about hygiene.
Modesty was of utmost importance, and the idea that someone would touch the most private
places of their own body to wash them was met with revulsion and shocked horror.
Those that did bathe did so with their clothes or at least underclothes on.
Most people didn't even bother with bathing, only washing their hands and faces.
Nuns were forbidden - washing anything above their ankles, and the French aversion to touching
oneself to wash was a huge hindrance in catching up to the rest of the world's idea of cleanliness.
In 1865, it got so bad that a new law made teachers responsible for teaching students
why it was important to change their underwear at least every few days.
Yes, they had to pass a law.
None of this is true today, of course, but it's been a tough association to shake.
Bizarre beliefs about cleanliness aren't just found in the ancient world.
Just a few decades ago, American women were encouraged to engage in an insanely dangerous
In the first half of the 20th century, Lysol, the disinfectant still used today, was marketed
as both a douche and a form of birth control.
And before 1953, it was even more dangerous.
The original formulation of the cleaner contained cresol, which Mother Jones says was linked
to health consequences including burns and even death.
Yet women were still being encouraged to use it to clean themselves in their most private
At the same time, it was also being marketed as a treatment for ringworm and a germicide
that could keep toilets sparkling.
It's unclear just what advertisers thought was going on down there, but they continued
to push Lysol as a feminine hygiene product for decades after it was found to be not only
ineffective, but dangerous.
Through the 1940s, it was actually the country's most popular birth control method, even though
it had been linked to deaths as early as 1911.
Lawsuits had been filed in the 1930s after women started claiming Lysol was giving them
burns, but the manufacturers were cleared and sales continued.
It wasn't until the 1960s that Lysol stopped marketing itself as a feminine hygiene product,
and it fell out of favor as birth control after the birth control pill came onto the
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