My toiletry dilemma

Rachel ArandillaRachel Arandilla
Postcard Travels


EVERY time I travel, I always get into the trouble of overpacking toiletries. No matter how I try to limit my personal hygiene products, I end up convincing myself that I needed this sunblock, this eau de toilette, or this hair serum. Because of this, traveling with just a carry-on can be difficult. While I can fit my toiletries by repacking it in a dozen of 100ml bottles, some countries like the UK require you to fit all your hand-carry liquids and gels in a provided (tiny) Ziploc bag.

It’s not just because I’m female. Yes, women do need a lot of toiletries — but being Filipino, the stash of products increases at least twofold. We love to take care of our personal hygiene — men and women alike.

Hand-carry liquids and gels: only this much allowed on European flights.
Hand-carry liquids and gels: only this much allowed on European flights.

Filipinos are known to love bathing. We do it as frequently as possible, once or twice a day, and some as much as thrice daily during the summer! We have more shampoo and soap products and commercials than any other culture (that I know of).

Even centuries ago, Filipinos already loved bathing, a habit we can also attribute to our tropical climate and abundant sources of water. But we also love being clean and smelling good. We can smell body odor from a mile away. We’re such a stickler for good personal hygiene.

When the Spanish colonizers came to the Philippines in 1521, the foreigners were aghast at how often we bathed, as they believed bathing provides an open opportunity to take off clothes, and in turn can lead to immorality, promiscuous sex, disease, and sin.

Because of this belief, the Spanish (and Europeans in general) rarely bathed during the Middle Ages up until the late 1800s. Hygiene is only restricted to washing hands and parts of the face. Still, washing the face was done as infrequently as possible for they believed it could lead to blindness. They try to hide their stench with heavy perfumes, scented rags, or carrying fragrant herbs in their pockets.

The European royalty were probably worse off than common peasants. According to the Today I Found Out website, a Russian ambassador who visited France described that King Louis XIV “stunk like a wild animal.” The Sun King is said to find the act of bathing “disturbing,” and has only bathed twice in his lifetime. Another royalty, Queen Isabela of Spain, boasted that she had bathed only twice in her life: first, when she was born; and second, when she got married. Russia wasn’t so finicky when it came to bathing and their royalty did it far regularly – relatively speaking, once a month. Because of this, Europeans thought Russians were perverts. Historical records show that our ancestors thought the European colonizers stank. And we weren’t the only ones who thought so, too.

The Spanish explorers under Hernan Cortes first arrived in Mexico in 1519 under the Aztec Empire. It felt for Aztecs as if they had encountered an alien race: the Spanish appeared like fellow humans, but looked different. They had white skin, lots of facial hair, hair like the color of the sun, and they also stank horribly.

In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Harari said Aztec natives assigned local incense burners to follow the foreigners around wherever they went. The Spaniards thought this was a mark of divine honor, but now we know that the natives just really found the foreigners’ smell unbearable.

At the least, the colonizers tried to change our local customs and beliefs as much as they could — but they never took away our love for good personal hygiene.

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