Man washing hands with stream water to maintain proper hygiene

Filthy Secrets: Unlocking the Cleaning Properties of Plants for Hygiene

Day 16: Scratched on the thin skin of a dried piece of agave leaf, you scribble another entry into your journal, kept daily since the crash. Alone, hot, thirsty and dirty, you’ve collected the grime and sweat of the past 15 days. Your hygiene has gone to the pits. Your teeth and tongue are covered with a thick film that tastes acrid, and you smell badly. Your hair is oily, tangled and itchy from irritations, perhaps because of the fleas embedded in the pelt of a javelina you skinned two days before.

Food is not an issue in the windswept desert; however, being constantly in poor hygiene is not only raising a concern for your physical health, it is weighing heavily on your morale. A disconcerting thought that remains with you is that more people have been killed by the tiniest microbes than all the world’s wars put together.


Disease and illness can run rampant when the infrastructure of a community is paralyzed or destroyed; the first widespread calamity to rear its ugly head after a major disaster is disease, usually from contaminated water.

Overlooked countless times by survivalists and preppers are a bar of soap, bottle of shampoo, some antibacterial lotion and toothpaste—simple and cheap products that can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Anytime you are away from civilization for any length of time, intentionally or not, consider taking with
you products to maintain your personal hygiene.

Pair of hands washing with soap and water to maintain good hygiene

Not only does keeping your hygiene help you maintain a healthy outlook about your situation, it also increases your confidence and gives you a comforting sense of normalcy in an abnormal scenario.

A buildup of bacteria and poor hygiene can harm a person’s health quickly, because those bacteria carry with them germs that are looking for a way to invade your body. The bacteria on a person’s skin make their body stale, and it then begins to give out a bad odor. That’s a sign of poor hygiene and that potential illness is just around the corner.

Washing your hands, feet and face can prevent the spread of germs from one person to another or from one part of your body to another. Similarly, flossing and brushing your teeth can reduce the likelihood of oral ailments.

“Overlooked countless times by survivalists and preppers are a bar of soap, bottle of shampoo, some antibacterial lotion and toothpaste— simple and cheap products that can literally mean the difference between life and death.”


As a civilized adult, your concept of hygiene is all about cleanliness and tidiness: keeping your clothes laundered, your hair smelling fresh and clean, your teeth pearly white and your skin free of the day’s sweat and grime. Ask a microbiologist the very same question, and he or she will tell you that hygiene is a matter of avoiding germs and disease. Evidence of this is found throughout the animal kingdom. Ants groom themselves to remove fungal pathogens, and bats groom to remove skin parasites, as do many other mammals, fish and birds. Mother primates have been observed wiping the behinds of their infants. Birds and mammals keep their nests free of fecal material, while raccoons, badgers, lemurs and tapirs use latrines that are separate from their sleeping areas. Sheep avoid grazing near fecal remains, and one reason that reindeer and caribou migrate is to avoid parasite buildup in overly manured fields.

Humans are no different than animals on a very basic level. Our reactions to feces, bodily fluids, rotten food and things that are sticky, oozing or abnormal are disgust and repulsion. Thousands of years of evolution have taught us that these things harbor disease, germs and bacteria and that they should be avoided.

Fat grease dripping from a pan that can be used to make soap
Don’t let that fat grease go to waste. Combined with ash from a hardwood, it can easily become a bar of soap.

According to Dr. Valerie A Curtis, Ph.D., of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, “Neanderthals apparently used seashell tweezers to pluck hair, and early cave paintings show beardless men, suggesting that grooming began early, perhaps to remove facial parasites. Hygiene artifacts, such as combs, are among the earliest material goods recovered.”

However, the first recorded use of soap (made of animal fats boiled and diluted with ashes) was in Phoenician times, although the use of oil and a scraper (known as a “strigil”) to scrape the skin of sweat and dirt comprised a more common way of cleaning the skin in the Greek and Roman eras.

Today, we know much about the behavior of thousands of disease-causing organisms and about how the human body defends itself from them. Scientists such as van Leeuwenhoek, Koch and Pasteur showed the world the existence of microbial agents of disease, and we finally had reason and logic to explain why we avoided what was bad and disgusting.

From there, we used common sense and marketing to change society into one that showered daily, washed its hands before each meal, brushed its teeth and combed its hair.

Modern medicine has advanced, but what if the medicine cabinet were empty? What if there were no medicine cabinet at all?

Avoiding Illness

In a survival situation, the danger of contracting diseases greatly increases. You might be existing outside the comfort of your cleaning products, hygiene products and normal practices.

Here are some tips that should be followed in order to maintain a proper level of hygiene for you and your fellow survivors:

• Always purify water obtained from natural sources before drinking it.
Establish a camp away from latrines. Cover latrines immediately after use.
• Keep potentially contaminated objects such as your fingers, sticks, equipment, etc. from your mouth, nose, ears, eyes and open wounds and sores.
• Wash your hands before handling food or drinking water.
• Clean your mouth and teeth at least once a day.
• Keep your body clean and protect yourself from insect bites and stings.
• Keep all clothing as dry as possible. Wet clothes should be dried out immediately.
• Get seven to eight hours of sleep a day.
• Include toilet paper, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, nail file, razor, cotton swabs, hand sanitizer, hand wipes, liquid soap, towel and comb in your bugout bag.


Just because you are stuck in the wilderness without your bar of Ivory or a tube of Crest, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a wide variety of fauna to adequately replace many of the hygiene products you use every day.

A hot shower and a good bar of soap are ideal for maintaining your hygiene, but those are rare luxuries in a survival situation. Germs on your hands are particularly dangerous, because they can infect food and open wounds. If you didn’t have the foresight to pack a bar of soap in your bugout bag or emergency kit, or if you’ve been gone so long that you’ve run out if it, there are a couple of different ways to create a reasonable facsimile of soap.

There are many plants that contain saponin—a steroid that has foaming characteristics when mixed with water. These help form a gentle, but effective, cleaner. Additionally, skin scrapers and a loofah made from a dried wild cucumber can be used to remove dead skin cells, oil and dirt.

Man scraping freshly-dug soaproot to be used to wash his hands
A freshly dug soaproot should be scraped. The scrapings are added to water and agitated between your hands to make soap.

Sun/Air Bath: If you lack water and/or soap for bathing, merely spending some time in the sun will help you slightly by killing germs. In the 1890s, Niels Finsen studied phototherapy, discovering that certain wavelengths of light can have beneficial medical effects—specifically ultraviolet light, at the wavelength of 254 nanometers.

Although this wavelength is almost all absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, very small traces of it get through; enough to work specifically on any fungal infections. Plus, the sun’s rays increase lymphocyte production, which helps defend against infection.

Ash and Lye: The earliest humans discovered that rubbing ash from burned hardwood (i.e., alder, buckeye, beech, hickory, mahogany, maple, oak, teak and walnut) over their faces and bodies and then rinsing the ash off with water was an effective way to stay clean. When the ashes are boiled in water for 30 minutes or so, liquid lye that floats to the top is created. Further rendering the lye thickens it, along with adding some clean grease from animal fat (alternatively, butter, olive oil, etc.). When it reaches a thick, mushy consistency in the pan, a very crude soft soap is the result. It can then be allowed to harden or used as is.

Buffalo Gourd
The buffalo gourd is related to the squash and the pumpkin. Soap can be made from its fruit—although a lower-grade lather is the result.

Yucca (Yucca spp.): Found all year long throughout the Southwest, the yucca produces long, slender leaves with sharp edges that come to a point. Besides being used extensively by native populations for baskets, home construction and clothing, the leaves contain a significant amount of saponin. Slice the leaves into very thin strands and agitate them between your hands with some water to activate the foaming properties. The fibrous leaves aid in scrubbing. Soaking the leaves will also produce a soap, and the root contains the most saponin (but cutting the root kills the plant).

Buffalo Gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima): This evasive weed grows in a variety of conditions across the United States. Also known as “coyote melon,” it is a relative of the squash and pumpkin. Pluck just the tips of the leaves and the tender, new sprouts and rub them between your hands with some water. Some people find the
tiny spines on the edges of the leaves irritating, which is why you should use leaves that are as young as possible. The fruit can also be used in the same way (that is, if you don’t eat it first).

Man walking along path with Yucca plants
The yucca can be found west of the Mississippi River; it grows all year long.


You might notice that after a few days of being in the wilderness, your breath will stay fresher longer and your teeth won’t require as much care as they did normally. This is because of your diet and the food available to you. High-sugar diets feed the bacteria in your mouth and throat, but without that sugar source (and starch), they’ll eventually die off. It is that bacteria that causes bad breath and other oral issues. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean your teeth.

Fir Twig: If you are in a fir pine forest, find a small twig with pine needles on it. Cut the needles to the length of toothbrush bristles. Although you won’t have any toothpaste, the pine needles will scrape away any debris on your teeth.

Scraping/Chew Stick: Cut a small twig at an angle (juniper trees work well) and use it to scrape up and down on each tooth. This takes a little longer than a fir twig brush, but it is effective. Sticks obtained from any tree will work, but some are better suited to clean and protect teeth: any fruit tree (apple, pear, orange), bamboo, fig, hazelnut, neem, silver birch and licorice root.

Chewing Gum: Although store-bought gum does clean your teeth, a substitute, if you can find it, is natural rubber from a rubber tree. Barring that, dried tree sap will keep your teeth clean. Additionally, the inner bark of a pine tree is chewable but not great tasting (and it can be poisonous to those with allergies, so don’t swallow it or your saliva).

Tree sap oozing from bark that can be chewed when dried to maintain oral hygiene.
A wad of partially dried tree sap can make a good chewing gum substitute that will help keep your teeth clean. Red maple, sweet birch, hickory, walnut and sycamore are all trees that produce a sweet sap (most are made into syrup). Also try chewing the inner bark of a pine tree.


Pine Needle Extract: Make a tea with pine needles, and use it as a daily rinse. Oak tannins from the leaves and acorns produce the same results.

Parsley: There is a reason they put parsley on your plate at fancy restaurants besides for visual appeal. For centuries, parsley has been used as a breath freshener. In addition, cloves, fennel, dill, cardamom, anise seeds, cinnamon, basil and cilantro will keep your breath fresh.


Left unchecked, lice, fleas and other parasites can infest your hair, spreading diseases and generally adding to the malaise of your situation. Keeping your hair clean and combed will make it more difficult for these pests to take root. You can use any of the plants that contain saponin, but soaproot and mountain lilac are excellent examples that will leave your hair clean … and smelling good, as well.

Soaproot (Blitum californicum): Not only can the leaves of the soaproot be cooked the same way you would cook spinach, in addition, the large taproot of this plant can be used to make soap. The root needs to be chopped up into fine pieces, similar to grating it. Once water is added and the mixture is rubbed between your hands, a frothy soap can be made—perfect for washing your hair. Soaproot can be difficult to find and harvest, because its taproot is typically a couple of feet underground.

Mountain lilac fruit which can be made into soap.
Fresh mountain lilac fruits can either be rubbed together with water to make a fragrant soap or they can be stored, dried, crushed into a power and mixed with water to produce soap. The flowers also make quality soap.

Mountain Lilac (Ceanothus spp.): Also known as “soap bush,” there are more than four dozen varieties found in North America. However, the best one is mountain lilac. It will lose its flowers in early summer, but its berries can also make soap. Best of all, these berries can be stored and made into soap when you need it (but first, they need to be ground into a powder).

Brush/Comb: Combs or brushes help remove dirt and other debris from your hair—not to mention any insects or spiders that might have burrowed in. A brush not only works for your hair; a longer version could also be used all over your body to remove dead skin cells and dirt. A brush can be made with a handful of stiff yucca leaves or leaves from a similar type of plant.


Everybody has to “go” at some point, and unless you’ve reached a point of starvation that shuts down your intestinal tract, it is best not to resist the urge. Lacking toilet paper shouldn’t be a concern, especially because it was only invented 2,000 years ago. Washable cloths, random paper and even corncobs were used before commercially available toilet paper was available in 1857. However, nature has an abundance of near-toilet paper products … in the form of leaves.

Mullein Leaves (Verbascum thapsus): This entire plant is nothing more than large, soft and pliant leaves covered in a downy fur. These are so popular for this purpose that its nickname is “cowboy toilet paper.” Mullein leaves are found in almost every U.S. region. They can grow to be more than 6 feet tall and have striking yellow blooms.

Mullein plant
If you don’t have any toilet paper, the soft leaves of the mullein plant make great

Wooly Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina): Found in open meadows all across the United States, wooly lamb’s ear leaves are exactly what you would expect: soft, thick, absorbent and large enough for adequate coverage.

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus): When you’re done eating the delicious berries of this plant, its pillowy-soft leaves can get you out of an uncomfortable situation. It grows mostly in the Northwest but can be found all across the Great Basin to the Great Lakes. Largeleaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla): Sometimes spanning the floor of entire forests in the upper Midwest region, the largeleaf aster has heart-shaped leaves that have provided countless indigenous peoples with an ample supply of toilet paper for generations. Also called “lumberjack toilet paper,” this aster grows violet flowers in the summer months, but its leaves can be used all year long.

Wooly Lamb's Ear plant.
Because of its large, soft, absorbent leaves, the wooly lamb’s ear is a perfect toilet paper substitute for when nature calls.


By William Jeffries. Photos by Christopher Nyerges, Francisco Loaiza and Gary Gonzales


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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