The Hygiene Question

I’d love to start riding my bike to work, you’re thinking, but won’t I be all sweaty and stinky and gross when I get there?

The short, glib answer: You’re asking the wrong question. You’ll be all endorphin-high and warmed up and stoked when you get there! The answer you’re more likely looking for: Most likely yes, but there are ways to handle that. The practical considerations of personal grooming for the workplace are one factor that we hear repeatedly mentioned by the bike-curious. After years of sorting such things out for ourselves, we’ve got a few ideas on the subject.

First, reevaluate your relationship with sweat. Google and I can’t seem to find who said it first, but I think sweat every day, laugh every day is a pretty good prescription for health. If you’ve become conditioned by being inside a climate-controlled environment day in and day out, you’re going to have to reacquaint yourself with the joys of working up a good sweat. Just remember: it’s okay to sweat, and if you’re worried about the stinky, pit-stained consequences, there are plenty of ways to mitigate them.

The gold standard, of course, is the workplace with locker room and showers. If you’re lucky enough to have these where you work, you’ve got no reason to fear the commute-induced sweat, period. Save your attention for questions like,  what route should I take to get to work, where shall I have my post-work beer, and do I want to sing Queen or Neko Case to myself as I ride?

If, however, you’re like most of us—changing in the bathroom and stashing your damp riding clothes under your desk, then with a little creativity, you can be as fresh as a daisy when you clock in. Here are five tried-and-true solutions, in no particular order. Mix and match from this list according to your needs.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, suggestion is: don’t break a sweat. This, of course, depends on the terrain and the weather. In the ultra-dry, high desert air of Albuquerque, it was pretty easy to stay dry—what sweat I generated tended to evaporate quickly. Here in humid, hilly Asheville, I don’t think I could arrive sweat-free, even if it were forty degrees out and I kept my speed to a strict 2MPH. But if you have the advantage of flat terrain, mild temperatures, and air that doesn’t resemble the inside of a terrarium, experiment with your pace. A nice, leisurely ride could very well end sweat-free. Bonus: this means you can commute in your work clothes and not have to change once you get there (assuming your work clothes aren’t a HazMat suit, turnout gear, or a giant sports mascot’s costume).


On a related note: dress appropriately for the weather. It’s easy enough to see how one might choose clothing for warm weather—ventilation, ventilation, ventilation is key (and sun protection, sun protection, sun protection, especially if you’re melanin-challenged like me). The real trick is learning to dress for the cold weather commute. You might be tempted to bundle up, but don’t forget that you’ll be generating an enormous amount of heat once you start pedaling. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re not cold during the first minute of your ride, you’re wearing too much. I’ve regularly commuted to work in below-freezing temps, and the only thing that changes is my hand protection—Dion can ride in light gloves all year round, but I have to add thick down mittens once the mercury drops below 25F or so, or my fingers complain. Otherwise, my cold weather gear is pretty minimal: Pearl Izumi thermal tights with light SheBeest knickers over top (only because I prefer not to rock any skin-tight bottoms in public—I have few vanities, but that’s one), a light- or mid-weight wool top (anything heavier is overkill, I promise), a light cycling jacket (which usually ends up unzipped before I get to work), an earband (my ears are as sensitive as my fingers, but my hair + helmet keeps my head plenty warm), and gloves. I am always roasty-toasty and working on a light sheen of sweat by the time I get to where I’m going. Any more clothing, and I’d be sopping wet.

And on the sopping-wet note: if you haven’t already, look into the special magic of wicking fibers. There are some nice synthetics out there, but wool is the cat’s pajamas. I keep my eyes peeled for sales and snap up the lightweight Icebreakers when I can. We’ll talk more about fabrics in the future, I’m sure.

Cool downs aren’t just for gym class. There’s a park across the street from where I currently work, with tall shade trees and wide benches. Ten minutes there, reading a book or preparing for the day’s tasks or simply watching the grass grow, does wonders for both my mental clarity and my red-faced, overheated body. It takes an extra iota of planning to leave the house a few minutes early, but building the cool-down period into your routine is the most low-tech way to combat the commute sweats.

The bandana bath and a word about soap: One of my not-so-secret weapons, stemming from my experience backpacking, is the humble cotton bandana. Wet that sucker down and tie it around your neck, and you’ve got a tiny superhero’s cape. Just kidding—it’s a devilishly effective cooling device that also happens to resemble a tiny superhero’s cape. (Win-win!) After you get to work, it doubles as a washcloth—a quick rinse in the sink, a refreshing swipe or two at your sweaty bits, and you’re good to go.

But Jessie, you ask, my normal shower routine involves name-brand foaming washes and exfoliating elixirs and organic fair-trade herbal distillates—how could I possibly get clean with just water?

You’d be surprised.

I know I was. After some intriguing reading (thank you, oh mighty interwebs!), I gradually started weaning myself from commercial bath products a few years ago. I still wash my hands with soap at all the appropriate moments—after using the bathroom, after handling raw meat, after accidentally clicking on celebrity gossip websites—and I still lather all my exposed skin with pine tar soap after I’ve been pulling the #$*@&%(@$* WILL NOT DIE poison ivy out of the back  yard, but I don’t routinely shower with soap. I enjoy the exfoliating feel of the occasional dry brushing or rough washcloth on my skin, but a little running water massaged into the skin (yes, pits and groin and all those smellier bits included!) is all I use. I don’t shampoo or condition my hair—a thorough rinse on really sweaty days feels nice, then I clean my scalp with dilute baking soda and apple cider vinegar once or twice a week.

Sounds gross? I can assure you that I’m more sensitive to smells than your average pregnant lady, and I pass my own sniff test. My skin and hair look and feel healthier than ever, and I’m saving loads of money (not to mention chemical exposure) to boot. And I don’t have to cart a travel kit full of toiletries with me wherever I go!

I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to care for your own body, but if this interests you, get to googlin’. There are a ton of resources, suggestions, testimonials, and tips out there—experiment, and find what works best for you.

Get to the root of stink, or, Your diet, your deodorant. Remember the saying, you are what you eat? It’s true in so many ways. And it’s one component of the hygiene discussion that can get overlooked. Think about it this way: what goes in must come out. Ever gone on a bender with your vice-food of choice, be it spicy or fatty or sweet? Did you pay the price the next day? Where certain bodily functions, er, not quite right? When we put disagreeable things into our bodies, disagreeable stuff must come out. And please don’t mistake me for some righteous, whole-foods zealot (I had hot wings and bacon cheese fries for dinner tonight, for crying out loud!). But I have observed that what I eat has a direct effect on how I feel, what my skin looks like, and, yes, how I smell. After I discovered some food sensitivities, I changed my diet and–among many other benefits–noticed I smelled better. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation here—but if you think this might help you, play around with what you eat and see what happens.

Changing what you eat can help reduce some BO, but in our sweet-smelling American culture, all of us still need a little help from time to time in the odor elimination department. Here’s another opportunity for cheap, DIY solutions. After some tinkering, I’ve found that a homemade coconut oil and baking soda deodorant works wonders for me; Dion prefers a spritz of a cedar-oil/rubbing-alcohol solution (it’s got a fresh, masculine scent, and has the added bonus of encouraging mosquitoes to find someone else to feast upon). Your mileage may vary. Soap, diet, deodorant… there are a lot of variables to consider when trying to outwit our primitive mammalian aromatic tendencies. We here at Bike-Ready have our own opinions (and how!), but we also believe that you are the one best equipped to figure out what works best for you.

Now that you’ve got some strategies for freshening up after your ride to work, you might be considering how to pull it all together—putting those work-ready touches on hair, makeup, clothes, and the like. Fear not—we’ll have recommendations in that department soon.

Just remember: it might feel like a lot of trouble on the front end, this planning and experimenting to make the bike commuting switch. But I promise you it’s worth it. No matter how much I don’t feel like riding, I’m always glad I did. No matter how bad my day at work, no matter how much frustration leaves with me, none of it ever survives the ride home. Turning those pedals burns up stress as much as it burns up calories. For that, I’ll manage a little sweat any day.

3 thoughts on “The Hygiene Question

  1. Pingback: Placing the Goalposts | Bike Ready

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