Other countries, other customs

Hygiene in different cultures

Illustration of a hand with index finger pointing upwards
Travelling to other regions of the world is exciting, as it allows you to get to know different cultures, customs and traditions. When travelling to foreign countries, however, there are not only exotic dishes, fascinating languages, and impressive architecture to discover. Hygiene practices in other cultures may also hold surprises. Let's take a look at how different countries and cultures differ in their hygiene traditions and what you can keep in mind as a tourist to avoid any faux pas.

Foreign languages, strange delicacies, exotic sounds: one of the best things about travelling is learning about other cultures. As tourists, however, we rarely think about the hygiene practices we encounter in other regions of the world. Yet hygiene traditions, like landmarks, clothing and national dishes, can also say a lot about cultures.

So, let’s pack our toilet bags, set off on a journey around the world, and discover hygiene customs in different parts of the planet. Let's start with one of the most enjoyable parts about travelling: eating.

Hygiene and table manners

It is often said that the best way to get to know other cultures is through food. As is well known, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But it’s not just food that differs from culture to culture, but also the concepts of hygiene and cleanliness associated with it. Nowhere is this more evident than in countries where people traditionally eat with their hands.
A woman eats rice from a bowl using chopsticks.

Finger food as part of culture

Several people eat with their hands from a bowl of rice and vegetables.
Eating with the left hand is considered impolite in many countries for reasons of cleanliness.

From Morocco and Mali to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and lndia: in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, meals are enjoyed with literally all five senses. “Eating with cutlery is like making love through an interpreter,” goes the saying in India, for example. [1]

Food in these cultures is therefore often eaten with the hands – but only with the right hand! After all, in many Asian, Arab, and African countries, the left hand is used for cleaning after using the toilet and is thus considered unclean. [2] It should therefore be kept out of the food – even if you have washed your hands thoroughly beforehand.

A place where this rule is likely to be followed particularly strictly is Ethiopia. Here it is not only the custom to eat with the hands and to eat together from the same plate. As a sign of friendship and respect, people in Ethiopia sometimes even feed each other during the so-called “gursha”. [3]

Eating with chopsticks

What people in Arab and African cultures accomplish with their right hand is traditionally done with chopsticks in East Asia: the cutlery utensils, mostly made of bamboo or wood, originated in China, where they are said to have been used as early as circa 5,000 years ago. From the Middle Kingdom, chopsticks then spread to other Asian countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. [4]

This long history has led to the establishment of a number of rules on how to eat with chopsticks. Some of them are also for hygienic reasons. In China, for example, two different types of chopsticks are used when people eat together: one pair of chopsticks is used to serve the food – another is used for eating. This is to prevent people from using their own cutlery to reach into the plates and bowls that are on the table for everyone – and thus prevent germs from migrating from their own mouths into the food of others. [5] The chopsticks for eating are also not placed directly on the table, as it is generally considered unclean. Instead, they are placed on a special tray, a bench, or the edge of the bowl or plate.

In Japan, too, it is customary to eat food with chopsticks. However, in the Land of the Rising Sun, one should be careful not to pass anything with them, as this is reminiscent of a special death rite in which the bones of the buried person are laid to rest with bamboo sticks as part of the mourning ceremony. [6] Accordingly, it is considered a bad omen to pass food from chopstick to chopstick. Whether this rule may also have something to do with preventing the transmission of germs cannot be definitively determined. But it is certainly hygienic.

Similar to Asia, there are also various rules in Europe and North America on how to properly handle cutlery when eating – although these have less to do with hygiene and are no longer followed too strictly in many places. For example, while most people still know to place the knife to the right and the fork to the left of the plate, it is quite rare nowadays to see someone cross the knife and fork to signal to the waiter or host that they are ready for the next plate.

A Chinese family having a meal together at a large table.
There are many rules for eating with chopsticks in Asia. Some of them also have hygienic reasons.

Toilet hygiene

Whether you use your hands, chopsticks or knife and fork to eat: what you eat sooner or later leaves your body. But the way we humans deal with using the toilet also differs greatly from culture to culture.
A bidet shower attached to the wall in a toilet.

Water or toilet paper?

A bidet shower placed directly in the toilet, under the toilet seat.
Toilets with built-in bidet showers are normal in Japan these days, but still a rarity in many places in Europe and North America.

If you come from Asia, Africa or the Arab world and travel to Europe or the USA for the first time, you may be surprised to find only toilet paper in the restroom. In countries like Thailand, Turkey or Egypt, after all, it is quite common to clean your buttocks with water after going to the toilet. Hence, many restrooms there have a kind of bidet shower, which is often installed on the wall next to the toilet or directly in the toilet seat and works in principle like a French bidet. In Turkish, this device is called “Taharet Muslugu”. [7]

In Japan, too, cleaning with water after going to the toilet is widespread. In terms of technological advancement, however, the country takes it even one step further. The toilets here are often real high-tech products that not only clean the buttocks with water at the touch of a button, but can also extract odours, offer a dryer function and even play music on request to cover up unpleasant noises. Considering this level of technological progress, Europeans who are only used to using toilet paper at home may feel like they’re back in the Stone Age. [8]

Proctologists long confirmed that the Western world lags behind Arab and Asian cultures in regard to toilet hygiene. On the one hand, the frequent use of toilet paper can quickly lead to skin irritations. Cleaning with water, in contrast, is much gentler. On the other hand, the anal shower is simply far more thorough and hygienic. [9]

Hygiene in public and private spaces

Differences in terms of hygienic customs can also be seen when we look at the practices and traditions of daily interaction. In Japan, for example, even before the pandemic, it was common practice to voluntarily wear a mask in public when experiencing cold symptoms in order not to infect others – an act of respect for one’s fellow human beings. [10]
A woman in a mask sits on a train.

Hygiene and politeness

Two young women bow in greeting to an older woman in traditional Japanese garb.
Non-contact greeting: The bow is considered more hygienic compared to shaking hands.

The famous Asian politeness is reflected in other practices that also reveal an awareness of interacting with others hygienically. The best example: the famous bow as a greeting or farewell. Certainly, this custom has predominantly traditional origins, but it is obvious that refraining from physical contact (compared to the Western handshake), significantly reduces the risk of transmitting pathogens.

Another example: while it is not uncommon to publicly blow one’s nose loudly in some European countries, e.g. Germany, this is often considered an absolute no-go in some parts of Asia. [11]

Perfume as a sign of welcome

Being invited to someone's home as a guest usually allows you to get to know another culture in a much more authentic way. Those who receive such an honour in Turkey can expect to receive a particularly hygienic welcome gift as soon as they enter. In the country on the Bosporus, it is customary to offer guests a few drops of perfume to cleanse their hands. [12]

Because of its high alcohol concentration of over 80 percent, “Kolonya”, as Turks call it, is supposed to eliminate viruses and bacteria. During the pandemic, it was therefore increasingly used as an alternative to conventional hand disinfectants. [13] Yet, even though “Kolonya” may be effective, conventional hand disinfectants are gentler on the skin: products such as Sterillium® contain a special skin care complex that counteracts the drying effect of high-percentage alcohol.

A person gets a few drops of Kolonya in the open palms to disinfect them.
The Turkish hand disinfectant alternative Kolonya smells pleasant. However, a conventional hand disinfectant such as Sterillium® is far more effective and gentler on the skin.

No shoes, no service

As in many other countries, it is also a custom in Turkey to remove one’s shoes when entering private homes and slip into special slippers so as not to soil the floor. This habit is taken to a completely different level in Japan, where tourists can not only find typical slippers, but also special toilet slippers that are worn exclusively in the bathroom.

The reason: in Japan, a strict distinction is traditionally made between clean and unclean places. Since the bathroom obviously belongs to the latter, it is absolutely normal for many Japanese to take off their house slippers and slipping into toilet slippers before using the toilet.

After you are finished, never forget to change back into your house slippers so as not to violate the separation between clean and unclean places. [14] As a tourist, you can encounter the toilet slipper tradition not only in the private sphere, but also in some Japanese restaurants and hotels. [15]

A pair of slippers for the toilet.
Slippers that are only worn in the bathroom? In Japan, this convention serves to separate clean and unclean places.

Poor hygiene is still a problem in many countries

A pair of hands with a little water splashing down on them for washing.
Basic hygiene infrastructures such as running water are still not a given in some regions of the world.

Disinfectants, comprehensive sewage systems and access to a bathroom in one’s own home: in the field of hygiene, humanity has made enormous progress in the 20th and 21st centuries. Globally, however, these developments are by no means equally distributed.

According to studies by the WHO, no less than 1.7 billion people worldwide still live without basic sanitation such as private toilets or latrines. Almost 500 million people are even forced to defecate in the open, for example in gutters, behind bushes or in open waters. [16] Some 2.3 billion people also lack a basic hygiene infrastructure, including running water and soap, at home. This includes 670 million people who cannot wash their hands at all. [17]

These figures show that what many people no longer even think about, such as access to a toilet and running water at home, cannot be taken for granted worldwide. Where basic hygiene infrastructures are lacking, however, it becomes all the more important to pay even greater attention to your own health – for example, by disinfecting your hands with Sterillium®. Therefore, before your next trip to other regions of the world, be sure to check your first-aid kit and make sure you have everything you need.

Further useful tips are available in our article “Healthy Holidays”.


[1] Süddeutsche Zeitung / Für mich bitte das Fettnäpfchen

[2] Independent / From using your left hand to smiling: Culturally inappropriate things tourists do abroad without realizing

[3] merkur.de / Hände als Besteck, Kaugummi an die Wand: Die Sitten anderer Länder

[4] Smithonian Magazine / The History of Chopsticks

[5] Shine / Chopsticks: Eating habits under scrutiny

[6] Süddeutsche Zeitung / Für mich bitte das Fettnäpfchen

[7] Deutschlandfunk Kultur / Kulturelle Unterschiede am stillen Örtchen

[8] taz / Barbaren mit Bremsstreifen

[9] Focus / Po-Dusche statt Klopapier?

[10] Der Standard / Auch Japan lockert Richtlinien zum Tragen von Masken

[11] Süddeutsche Zeitung / Das Wichtigste kommt zum Schluss

[12] DTJ / Kolonya: Die türkische Geheimwaffe gegen Corona expandiert

[13] Euronews / Das duftende Desinfektionsmittel: Türken schwören auf „Kolonya“

[14] Frankfurter Rundschau / In Japan trägt man spezielle WC-Slipper

[15] Welt / Gebrauchsanleitung für japanische Toiletten

[16] WHO / Sanitation

[17] CDC / Global Wahs Fast Facts

Use disinfectant safely.
Always read the label and product information before use.

[Please amend in accordance with local requirements (e.g. law of advertising, product status, CLP labelling)]

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