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The Medical Minute: Preparing preteens for good hygiene practices

Parents teach young children to bathe regularly, brush their teeth twice a day and keep their hair neat and clean. But when those children enter puberty and their bodies begin to change, hygiene needs also change.

“When preteens have good hygiene habits, they can be better prepared for all of the upcoming changes in puberty, which can lead to a boost in their confidence,” said Dr. Katie McHale, a pediatrician through Penn State Health Children’s Hospital at the Milton Hershey School.

McHale notes that talk of hygiene can vary depending on when physical changes start, but 10 years of age is a good guideline to start. By the time puberty starts, children should already know to bathe daily—especially in the summer or after rigorous play—and to wash their hair on a regular basis.

Hair washing is especially important to do regularly as hair becomes oily during puberty. “When oily hair touches your face, it can lead to acne,” McHale said.

She recommends that all preteens begin using a gentle facial cleanser rather than soap when they wash their face and apply a light facial lotion with sunscreen in the morning.

Girls who use makeup need to clean the brushes regularly to avoid bacteria build up that can cause acne, as do cell phones.

“Bacteria is often present on the surface of cell phones, so you can get breakouts along your face where you would hold a phone,” she said.

McHale recommends that daily use of a deodorant or antiperspirant become part of a preteen’s routine before body odor becomes an issue.

“That’s one thing I see that kids don’t know to do soon enough,” she said. “It gets them into the habit. If they do it earlier than they need to, it isn’t going to cause them any harm.”

Hair growth should prompt conversations about how to shave, how often to do it and how often to change razors. Cleansing skin before shaving will keep open pores from getting irritated. Using shaving cream rather than soap softens hairs and keeps them from becoming ingrown.

Regularly changing the blade in your razor can prevent irritation from a dull blade. How often to change it depends on how frequently the individual shaves. “If you are shaving daily, once a week would be appropriate,” McHale said.

After shaving, it’s important to clean the razor with hot water and dry it out to prevent bacteria growth.

Parents should talk with their daughters when they start to menstruate about the types of feminine hygiene products available. Knowing what to expect, what to have handy in a purse or backpack and how often to change those products can make the monthly occurrence less stressful. McHale said it’s also useful to teach your daughter how to chart her menstrual cycle so that she can prepare for it.

Parents who aren’t sure how to talk about hygiene habits with their children can find a lot of useful information online. McHale has heard of single mothers viewing how-to shaving videos together with their sons.

“It’s important for parents to screen online videos first to ensure the content is correct,” she said. “It’s hard to address everything at once or know exactly when to start, but the best thing is to be open with your child and talk about things ahead of time.”

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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