From travelling the world to needing soap from a foodbank – the ‘shocking’ rise of hygiene poverty

Chantel Graham never thought she would need to rely on donated toothpaste and soap to keep her two daughters and her house clean.

But when the pandemic grounded her job as cabin crew for a major airline, she went from a comfortable existence to barely making rent.

“My life changed drastically,” the 39-year-old told Sky News. “I went from flying around the world and visiting different countries to being at home with two kids, alone, with little income.

“I was trying to make things, make cleaning products myself, my toothpaste myself, make baking soda.

“And I’ve got two children, at the time they were two and seven.

“But it wasn’t going very well. The smell of white vinegar as a cleaning product wasn’t something they enjoyed, and baking soda wasn’t something they could tolerate.”

Eventually, she sought help from a foodbank, where she could get soap, toothpaste and washing-up liquid.

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‘You don’t want to admit you’ve failed’

But it was a difficult step for someone who had earned a living since she was 16.

“You don’t want to admit you’ve failed, you don’t want your children to know how bad things are,” Ms Graham said.

The experience was isolating and lonely, but she is far from unique in her struggle.

Nine million people in the UK live in hygiene poverty, according to research by In Kind Direct charity, which says that number tripled on last year.

Among them, 56% are in work, and 38% live with children.

Paul Buchanan, the charity’s interim CEO, added: “We hear examples of families using washing up liquid as shampoo and shower gel, children sharing toothbrushes.

“It feels like a pretty basic human right that people should have access to those things.”

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Thousands too ashamed to go to work because they can’t afford soap and deodorant

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‘It was shocking to me’

Many families have little choice but to turn to foodbanks, some of which have seen a huge increase in demand for toiletries.

Marie Henry, a volunteer for Breadline London foodbank, said: “In the last two months we’ve seen more than, almost an 100% increase in demand for hygiene products.

“Hygiene products are the first thing that goes when families are struggling, especially parents when they’re struggling, because it’s easier to use washing up liquid for everything, for your hair, for your clothes, everything.”

Her foodbank tries to ration supplies so everyone who needs them gets them – but when they run out, people resort to desperate measures.

“It was shocking to me, when they come to an organisation like Breadline London, they’re asking for period products especially, because they are using newspaper,” Ms Henry said.

“Ladies have got newspaper that they’ve stacked up just in case they can’t have anything.

“I just feel so, so sad.”

For Chantel Graham, the end of pandemic restrictions meant she could go back to her job as cabin crew, slowly rebuilding her life.

But for so many others, campaigners say choosing between keeping clean and eating remains a daily struggle.

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