Investing in Yourself: Personal Appearance and Hygiene

Recently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

If this article seems to be too much about “basic life skills” for your tastes, stop for a moment and think about people you’ve met who put little or no effort into their personal appearance. Think of people with bad breath or greasy hair and how your opinion of them subtly changed when you noticed these things. This advice is primarily for those people, but also as a reminder to everyone that the small efforts of personal appearance are tiny investments that do pay off.

Personal appearance is one of those subtle things that’s difficult to quantify. Mostly, it’s a collection of a lot of small investments of time and effort that add up to a slight but noticeable tweak in how people think of you. The difference is real, and over time these small differences in a lot of interactions and events can really add up. Keeping clean and keeping up a good appearance are also great ways to simply feel good – I know for me personally, few things make me feel better than a hot, soaking shower. Even better, personal appearance is something that you can maximize – or at least significantly improve – with just a bit of effort. Here are a bevy of little steps you should be taking to maximize the value of your personal appearance, from the obvious to the subtle.

Maintain a daily hygiene schedule.
For some people, setting aside time each and every day for basic personal hygiene is a challenge. They’re wrapped up in work, super-involved with their families, and have too many things going on, so they’ll just skip an evening shower and make things look all right in the morning, or they’ll simply fall into bed without thinking about it and then get up so late in the morning that they have to bolt out the door to start taking charge of their responsibilities.

Hygiene is important. Schedule some time each day to take care of things. I usually do my hygiene tasks the moment I wake up, and I have a litany of things that I go through as part of the routine. If you don’t have an established routine that is simply a fundamental part of your day, start one. Literally make a list of things to do and do them every day. That time you invest will pay off in the long run because you’ll be constantly providing a subtle positive cue to others about yourself – and you’ll feel better, too.

Take a bath or shower and clean thoroughly.
When I was in school, I bathed in a shared shower situation with a lot of other people and I witnessed people standing under the shower for a few minutes, flopping a bit of soap lather on themselves, rinsing it off, and getting out. If that sounds like your average shower, you need to start scrubbing a bit more. Lather up a washcloth with a lot of soap and use it to scrub down all of your body. Rub vigorously everywhere, then rinse. If the place produces significant odor, do it two or three times. Trust me – at the end of the day, this will leave you feeling much fresher than if you just take an ultra-quickie shower.

Don’t use antibacterial soap.
Antibacterial soap might kill off some of the bacteria on your skin, but that’s bad for two reasons. First of all, it lowers your own resistance to a variety of bacteria, making you more susceptible to bacteria-borne illness. Second, if a soap kills off 99.9% of bacteria, the 0.1% that’s left is going to be resistant to that soap and will thrive. In the words of Dr. Stuart Levy, a microbiologist at Tufts University: “Dousing everything we touch with antibacterial soaps and taking antibiotic medications at the first sign of a cold can upset the natural balance of microorganisms in and around us, leaving behind only the superbugs.” Use some quality soap, but don’t use antibacterial soap – it has no real benefit and may in fact make you sick over the long haul.

Brush your teeth, floss, and get dental checkups.
One of the first things I notice about a person is whether their breath smells badly. For some people, this is a medical condition; for others, it’s a side effect of too much garlic. Either way, you can go a long way towards preventing it by practicing good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth every day and floss them, too. Also, visit the dentist sometimes to make sure your teeth are still in good shape.

A clean mouth and clean teeth give you a nice smile and fresh breath, both of which are major positives for one’s personal appearance. It just takes a good scrubbing in the morning to cause it, so don’t skip over brushing your teeth.

Get dental or orthodontic work, if necessary.
When my “adult” teeth first came in, several of the front ones came in highly crooked and it left me feeling very self-conscious. I avoided smiling and looked rather surly much of the time, and when I would occasionally flash my teeth, the inside of my mouth looked like a mangled train wreck. Not pretty, and not good for my social interactions. Thankfully, my father’s health insurance was able to cover braces for these and, after the correction, my teeth appear perfectly straight.

Having your teeth fixed is a wonderful investment. Many health care plans will cover dental corrections, so if you have any issues with your teeth, mention them to your dentist or seek out an orthodontist. Most dental corrections are simple and very cost effective investments for improving your personal appearance, so seek them out.

Use deodorant.
A scentless odor-blocking deodorant, preferably one that does an effective job of absorbing moisture, can do wonders for both minimizing any potential body odor and for keeping any moisture from appearing on your clothing. Most deodorants work pretty well for the average person – don’t overthink it, just apply it.

Keep your hair clean and trimmed evenly, at the very least.
Again, a fairly obvious tip: keep your hair clean, combed, and trimmed. I like to keep my hair very short – it’s easy to make it look professional and very easy to keep clean. In fact, for quite a while, I kept it at stubble length – it looked good and was almost no maintenance at all.

The important thing is to keep it clean. Clean hair, even if it’s a bit disheveled or not cut perfectly, does wonders for a person’s appearance. When you take a shower or bath, give your hair a thorough scrubbing.

Shave, or keep your beard trimmed.
Almost every guy in America goes through a beard phase – some for longer than others. I was no exception. For a few years, I had a strong lumberjack look going. My beard grows in very thick, so it was hard to even keep trimmed well and now I have to shave twice a day to keep a clean-shaven appearance.

Why bother? Again, it’s a subtle symbol of your attention to detail. An unshaven face on most males looks pretty unkempt and unprofessional and gives off subtle signs of “I don’t care.”

Minimize body artwork unless it clearly doesn’t matter or is beneficial to your career.
Personally, I’m all in favor of people expressing themselves through body art. While I’ve personally never utilized any, both of my brothers have a wide assortment of body art and some of it is simply stunning. However, I’ve personally witnessed this body art causing a social stigma for my middle brother, who has several pieces visibly evident beyond his clothing. He’s been avoided on the street, passed over for work promotions, and faced various subtle social stigmas because of the art.

If you choose to have body art, be aware that for many people, such art is in fact a social stigma and that you will suffer for it in various ways, both subtle and non-subtle. In some careers and some social strata, body art is inconsequential or even encouraged, but this is far from true for all careers and all social strata. In a nutshell, be very careful of the long-term consequences if you are considering some form of permanent body art.

Dress well, usually a touch above what is considered the norm.
Observe what the standard dress code is in your workplace, then strive to dress just a slight notch better than that. Not enough so that you stick out, but enough so that you look very crisp and fresh compared to the rest of the crowd. If everyone wears t-shirts and blue jeans in a work environment, wear ones that are crisp and clean. If you’re in a highly casual office environment, stick to business casual. If everyone wears dress shirts and Dockers, keep your clothes clean and pressed and bust out a tie on occasion.

Of course, this doesn’t work in all work cultures. At a minimum, make sure what you’re wearing is clean and presentable, though, as people will visit and draw a number of conclusions based on your appearance – a bunch of grungy guys in cubicle-land doesn’t instill heavy confidence in the higher-ups.

Greet everyone you meet, shake hands, smile, and willingly engage in conversation.
Once a day or so, I make the rounds to all of the offices and cubicles near where I work, greeting everyone and saying hello. As a result, I have a fairly solid relationship with everyone nearby. Whenever someone new comes into the office, I greet them and shake their hands firmly.

All of this only takes a few moments, but it creates a very positive impression of you in a social sense, particularly when combined with good hygiene and good appearance. It only takes a few greetings from a well-scrubbed person to develop some level of positive feelings towards that person, and that’s something that’s always good to have in your corner.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.