The Tricky Subject of Personal Hygiene

First a few rules for personal hygiene and working closely together:

1. Shower daily.

2. Wash clothes.

3. Deodorant, people!

This probably seems pretty obvious to you , but sometimes it is, well, NOT obvious to everyone. I’ve had a spate of discussions lately with colleagues, friends etc- about what to do about such issues as personal hygiene, the length of a trainees hair (is it a fire hazard, is it just unprofessional?), if anything. A colleague of mine tells endless stories about someone they once worked with in an open lab type situation that would pass gas loudly, just well- whenever.

Usually these discussions end with us giggling it up innocently (and somewhat uncomfortably) about what to DO about such situations that cross this tricky professional and interpersonal boundary.  How do you talk to a trainee that works for you about the fact that they are stinking it up for everyone else that works with them? When attire and personal appearance (long hair for example) are safety hazards- that makes it pretty straightforward to deal with. But how do you mention that professional dress and personal presentation ARE important when your students are TAs for undergrads?  Probably pretty simple if you are just mentioning that the teaching dress code is something other than jeans and a T-shirt- but do you ever cross the line into grooming habits?!  And what about gender- cause I imagine just for example- if you were a male PI you might have to tread lightly around some of these subjects with female trainees.

I know, it seems obvious, but it is just NOT.

11 thoughts on “The Tricky Subject of Personal Hygiene

  1. At the last SFN, I was talking with some other grad students about how the standards for professional presentation seem to fall off as ones credentials increase. Walking around the poster session, the undergrads could be seen from a mile away (jacket and tie, maybe a suit). Grad students just wore slacks and a button down shirt. You *might* find a hip grad student presenting a poster in a tie, but the top button was likely undone. Only the PIs seemed to get away with jeans. Maybe the lack of suits is an effort to distance oneself from the vendors.


  2. I wear jeans to teach lab — as a fifty something full professor — for safety reasons! But pumps and pearls in the lecture hall.

    It’s hard to have these conversations, and I think over the years I’ve ducked them more often than not. What do you say to a student (in an all women’s lab) who strips down to her bra under her lab coat in an incredibly overheated space?

  3. Honestly, I think it’s much easier to talk about this subject when you’re a mentor or provide oversight. This way you can tell them about what is acceptable professional dress, and oh by the way some things they may not give consideration to but which can turn out to be quite important … like making sure they don’t have BO and their breath doesn’t stink like a swine wastewater anaerobic lagoon (because they will come into close contact with students).

    If they raise an eyebrow, just tell them it’s a part of the McDonald’s hot coffee syndrome … these things are common sense, but stupid people exist so a blanket warning is issued to everyone.

    That situation is much easier to handle than if it’s a coworker that you hardly interact with, but on the occasions that you do, you feel the need to take a shower YOURSELF afterward.

  4. My peers and I always said that when/if we became PI’s we’d be able to deal with these issues maturely. Now I’m there, I have a stinky employee (technician) and I have no idea how to deal with it. It’s not BO, it’s not bad breath. He just smells weird (and bad). Maybe it’s dietary. But some days I can smell him before I enter the lab, and I just want to turn around and go home. Other days, you can’t smell him unless you are close up; those days, he compensates for his less-offensive smell by having horrible gas. I have had to close my office door on occasion. It’s a small lab, why can’t he take it elsewhere?

    I worry about him deterring students and others from joining the lab (for now it’s just the two of us). But he is rather sensitive, and I am a wimp.

  5. Anonymous- That’s actually why I wrote this post- we all thought we’d be mature about it…. but …. but… HOW. A colleague told me about a situation similar to the one you are dealing with… so far no one has dared touch upon a tactful solution.

  6. I am currently mentoring a student who, I must assume, is terribly frightened by a toothbrush and toothpaste. It’s difficult for me to discuss anything with this person b/c I am literally suppressing every urge to gag. I have gotten suggestions such as leave mouth wash on their bench or desk or just flat out tell them, but I haven’t taken any kind of initiative b/c it just seems so rude. Plus, there is a serious language barrier and I am not sure how to make sure I am understood. I feel like if I were a PI, I could handle it better b/c I would be in more of a position of authority, but really I don’t think that would make it any easier to tell someone that they smell bad. I guess the only way to handle these types of situations is to just be direct and to the point. I just hope I can do it.

  7. Oh man. The other week my office started reeking of BO, and I’m the only one in there. I couldn’t figure it out. I personally didn’t seem to smell bad, but I was worried that that was just the old “fox can’t smell it’s own hole” thing going on. So I took a second shower in the Dept restroom and opened my windows. But it wasn’t until the end of the day that I realised it was actually some raw onion rinds that had been sitting in my trash can since the day before (why do they put it on sammiches, I ask you?).

    So let that be a lesson to everyone.

  8. Those who you perceive as smelling bad do not innately smell ‘bad’. Smell, like most perceptions, is a matter of taste and a function of your culture and olfactory bulb. If you are going to talk to a lab member about your aesthetics that’s fine, but using your position to enforce your social norms, even if your labhas a finely tuned group-think thing going on, is wrong.

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