The Search for Gender-Affirming Hygiene Products

The Search for Gender-Affirming Hygiene Products

You walk into the corner store with a short grocery list: things like milk, cereal, and deodorant. Everything’s going smoothly until you turn the corner into the personal care aisle. An invisible line parts the wall of hygiene products. On one side, words like beautiful and sensitive adorn pastel colors, floral scents, and diminutive packaging. The other side sports dark labels, woodsy smells, and words like power and adventure.

Are you a boy or a girl? The deodorant selection seems to ask.

What should be a ten-minute errand becomes an unexpected interrogation. What does the shampoo you use say about your identity? Will people smell the gender of your bodywash? How will the cashier react if you bring this shaving cream up to the counter?

If you’re non-binary, gender non-conforming, or questioning, you might struggle to find anything that reflects your identity, especially if you've been spending most of your life using products other people bought for you, or personal care items you selected because you were "supposed to," from pink razors to heavy cologne.

This can be nerve-wracking if you’re a trans person with a binary identity, too. You might know which gender signals are affirming but worry about experiencing hostility for claiming them publicly. Let’s untangle some of the factors at play here — not just gendered packaging, but price, scents, ingredients, and vendors, too — so you can feel comfortable exploring all of your options.

Why Bother?

Gendered messaging is everywhere. The clothes we wear, the toys kids play with, even in our food. Once you start to see it, it’s hard to un-see it.

It can seem -- because it is -- pretty absurd. How can a bar of soap have a gender? What does it matter if I use “boy soap” or “girl soap” — isn’t the important part just to get clean? Even a 100 percent binary, 100 percent cisgender person who has never questioned gender identity might wonder this. It’s a fair question!

You may decide the whole thing is a bunch of nonsense and you don’t care what gender it says on the bottle. More power to you! But it’s also okay if you do care. And whether or not you agree that certain colors, scents, or words align with specific genders, we live in a society where these ideas often go unchallenged. It's okay to recognize that, too.

If it’s affirming for you to snag that apparently extra-girly, masculine, or gender-neutral face scrub, go for it! On the other hand, if your situation makes you feel unsafe bringing home affirming products, it may help to think of what’s on the shelf as camouflage instead of a statement about your identity. The things you buy are tools you mold to suit your needs, not the other way around.

You can use those gendered scents, change the way you style or cut your hair, and adopt new gender-linked grooming habits to explore your relationship with gender. For example, someone who wants to feel more masculine might avoid shaving their legs and armpits and start shaving their face instead — even if they don’t grow facial hair, just going through the motions can be fun and affirming. Similarly, someone who wants to feel more feminine could start shaving their legs and armpits, sculpting their eyebrows, and wearing makeup. Nail polish can be another fun and affirming part of the femme toolkit! Even if you’re in the closet, you might do your toenails and keep them away from prying eyes under socks and closed-toe shoes — but you will know how fabulous they look!

The point of all this is to find tools that make you more comfortable and confident with being you, gender and all. If passing is important to you, they may help you accomplish that, too. But if passing isn't a priority for you, playing with scents, cosmetics, and more can be a fun experience.

So what can help you with that? All kinds of things! Shampoo, conditioner, hair masks, face masks, hair accessories, cosmetics, stick-on nails and lashes, body glitter, hair glitter, body wash, soap, bath bombs, hand lotion, body lotion, foot lotion, face wash, face scrub, razors and shaving cream, aftershave, beard oil, mustache wax, hair gel, mousse, hair curlers, straightening irons, blow dryers, hair dye, nail polish, perfume, cologne, body butter, lip butter, lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

Factors to Consider

Gender presentation may not be the only thing on your mind as you’re exploring your options in the world of personal hygiene. Here are a few other things to think about:

  • Cost! This is a big one. Not only will price vary based on brands and vendors, gendered marketing affects prices. A 2015 study found that: “On average, personal care products cost women 13 percent more than men.” Products marketed towards feminine consumers sometimes come in smaller packaging, so keep an eye on the cost per ounce, not just sticker price.
  • Vendor. Do you want to buy online or in person? Do you have preferred brands? Indie maker or large-scale company? Do you want to visit a specialty retailer, or are you more at home at the drug store?
  • Ingredients. You may be looking for vegan, organic, cruelty-free, or fair trade ingredients. Small vendors are more likely to be able to work with you to customize products, but be aware that this can drive up the price.
  • Specific needs. Everyone has slightly different needs from personal care products. You may be looking for color guard for dyed hair or products designed for Afro-textured hair. Skincare products are formulated differently for dry and oily skin. Conditions like dandruff or acne can also affect your options.
  • Medical Transition. Taking hormones will also affect skin and hair growth! Testosterone encourages skin to secrete an oil called sebum, so FTM folks may see more acne and need to exfoliate more. In contrast, estrogen slows down sebum production, so MTF folks may notice their skin is drier than they are used to and want to pick up some moisturizers.
  • Privacy. Unfortunately, you might not be in a situation where you feel comfortable or safe putting your gender identity on display. If you share a bathroom with family or roommates you fear won’t accept your newfound gender expression, you still have options. Maybe you can share products with a supportive sibling or friend, for example. You might switch to neutral products to avoid the question altogether. You could even stow the contents of a gender-affirming product in a container that conforms to your housemates’ expectations.
  • Ethics. The cosmetics industry is big business, and many corporations have poor labor practices, engage in harmful political lobbying, or use problematic ingredients. If you're concerned about ethics, be aware that single-issue organizations often focus on what matters to them, but not the bigger picture. One group might tell you a cosmetics company is LGBQT-friendly...but maybe it uses child labor, tests on animals, or maintains an unjust pay gap for employees of color. Experts have some tips on learning more about brands to determine whether they align with your ethical concerns.

A Note on Scents

Scent is one of the few gender markers that sticks around once the shampoo’s out of its color-coded bottle. Of course, scents don’t actually have genders, but like it or not, our culture likes to slap a gender on anything it can get its hands on — or, in this case, its nose.

You can use those cultural assumptions to your advantage! (But remember: Interpretations of scent and gender are highly cultural.)

Looking for some feminine flair? Floral and fruity scents will serve you well, whether you choose calming lavender, bold mangoes and cherry blossoms, or the more subtle zest of a fresh lemon aroma. You may also find products that cater to stereotypes about girly mixed drinks or champagne, or even “sweet” smells like sugary desserts.

Is a masculine musk more your speed? You might try earthy scents like cedar, pine, or spice blends. Some play into hyper-masculine stereotypes, like cigarette or whiskey scented aftershave.

Maybe you don’t want a scent that screams MASC! or FEMME! Some smells seem to pop up all over the gender spectrum, especially sea salt and rain-themed scents. Fresh smells like cucumber, clean linen, mint, and sometimes citrus can be good choices to avoid sending strongly gendered signals. There’s plenty of grey area in gender signaling — shea butter, almond, and coconut may count as femme-to-neutral, and coffee or mountain fresh may fall somewhere from neutral-to-masc depending on personal taste. Unscented is always an option, too!

Shopping Online versus In-Store

Online shopping has undeniable advantages for trans and otherwise gender-nonconforming folks. With no face-to-face human contact, there’s no one to judge or misgender you based on your appearance. It’s simpler to compare prices. You can access a much wider selection than you would in any one store and may find trans-affirming vendors that don't have an in-store presence.

There are barriers to online shopping, though. You need access to a computer and a way to make payments online. You’ll likely have to pay for shipping. Privacy can be an issue: you may have concerns about your activity being noticed on shared computers or about receiving shipments securely. You have some options to work around these barriers, though — if you don’t have a credit card, you can use cash to buy Visa gift cards and pay online with those. You could have your purchases sent to trusted friend or relative if you don’t want to receive them at home. A community resource center, especially one that is trans-affirming, may have computers you can use or be willing to receive shipments for you.

Buying gendered products in-store can be scary when you’re trans. But it can also be affirming! “Yeah, I’m getting this girly body butter. And?” If you don't feel safe buying gender affirming products, it's still possible to do so without outing yourself. You might ask a store associate to help find “a gift for mom/dad” or “something my boy/girlfriend and I can both use, since we’re trying to save money.” DON’T feel guilty if you need to fib a little to feel safe! The most important thing is your security.

A typical drug store is the first stop for many people. In addition to being cheaper, generic store brands sometimes come in simpler and less gendered packaging. The biggest disadvantage is a limited selection. This can be especially noticeable if you have specialized needs. They’re unlikely to stock any explicitly queer- or trans-affirming products or high-end brands.

Chain and boutique stores can carry a wider selection. Societal expectations may make you feel that stores devoted to hair and skin care products are feminine spaces. Many of these stores carry a line marked “For Men,” however. Does that imply that items without that label — the majority — are not for men? Does it make them feminine or neutral instead?

Depending on your gender identity, this may affect how comfortable you feel and how others perceive you in these spaces. Besides these “For Men” product lines, scents and packaging in these stores often eschew gender to focus around conceptual themes such as locations, types of nature, moods, or even horoscopes. Stores that emphasize natural ingredients also tend to focus on the benefits of their ingredients instead of assigning gender to their products. These may be neutral spaces where you can interpret how features like scent, color, and ingredients fit into your gender presentation based on your personal perceptions instead of labels.

Unfortunately, you might encounter salespeople who look down on young people, visibly trans/queer people, and/or people of color. If you’re concerned a store might be snobby or engage in discrimination, check out their online reviews! It might not be a bad idea to bring along a supportive, responsible adult-type, too, if you know where to find one of those. And if someone does give you a bad attitude? Politely let them know that you are plenty capable of speaking with their manager, leaving a review online, and taking your business elsewhere. If you can’t reach their conscience, hit them in the wallet.

Independent sellers can be a great resource for finding gender-affirming bath and body products. Countless entrepreneurs sell their hand-made goods on sites like Etsy, but you can also find these folks in person at farmers’ markets or by inquiring with small business co-ops and chambers of commerce near you. These organizations can be especially helpful if you want to support queer and trans entrepreneurs, black-owned businesses, vegan or cruelty-free artisans, fair-trade companies, local business, or any communities and values that are important to you. Folks who hand-make their products may even be willing to customize their work to your needs, although be aware that this can drive up the cost. If you’re buying online, watch out for international shipping, and you should always be aware of vendors’ ratings from other customers. Be wary if a lot of previous customers complain about poor quality, service, or communication!

Last but not least, if none of these is a good fit, you could make it yourself! Why DIY? Maybe you’re concerned about financially supporting a business with questionable labor or environmental practices, or one whose marketing fuels rigid, binary gender roles. If you’re interested in natural products, there’s no better way to know exactly what’s going into your hair and skin products than by making them yourself. What’s more, the act of creating your own products can be very empowering — it’s not just custom-made for your gender, it’s custom-made for YOU! On the downside, cost can be a barrier, especially start-up costs. This is also the most time-consuming option.

Get Experimental!

Maybe no one product feels quite right. It can be tough to find something that consistently feels good, especially if your gender is fluid. Don’t be afraid to experiment! You could get some masculine-coded products and some that are more femme and pick which to use by how you’re feeling on any given day. Or maybe you want to go neutral: Unscented soap, deodorant, and antiperspirant are available — and can be appreciated by those with scent sensitivity. You might decide to experiment with a base of neutral scents with body wash or deodorant and add a layer of perfume or cologne on top if that speaks to you. The natural scent of your own body is an option, too!

Remember, these are all just suggestions that might help you turn a highly-gendered minefield into a source of affirmation. Using a product with certain gender associations isn’t the end all and be all. Plenty of cisgender and binary-gendered folks buy neutral scents or shop across gender lines. So can you! Nothing you buy in the store defines who you are or prescribes your gender. Rather, they are tools for you to use or not use as you see fit.

Whatever you choose, always remember: you and your gender are valid, no matter what products you do or don't use.

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