How to Look Your Best in Outer Space: Two Astronauts Reveal Their Onboard Beauty and Grooming Routines

Do astronauts need sunscreen on the space shuttle? Shave their legs? Wear perfume?
Publish date:
August 12, 2015
shaving, sunscreen, bathing, hygiene, deodorant, toothpaste, Astronauts, Space, NASA

I think most of us have cinematic ideas about space, mainly from movies or TV: Star Wars, Star Trek, Apollo 13, Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, Alien 5, Alien vs. Predator (sorry, big Alien fan over here)—you get the picture. There have also been major space exploration realities throughout my life that made a huge impression on me—the tragedy that was the Challenger in 1986 to just recently, the flyby of Pluto.

Most of us are curious about what happens up there, and nothing fills me with more awe than the people who get to travel into the big, great galaxy. When Liz Lemon gets to yell at the moon with Buzz Aldrin, I am earnestly jealous. Are you kidding me!?! What a coup!

So, if you’re into space exploration, you may know that NASA has a ton of videos out, and there are some really great ones where astronauts have filmed their daily lives; washing the hair is especially popular and totally amazing to watch. Here’s astronaut Karen Nyberg showing us how it’s done:

I had additional questions and wanted a fresh perspective, so I got a hold of Nicole Stott (space missions: STS-128, Expedition 20, Expedition 21, STS-129, STS-133) and Clayton Anderson (space missions: STS-118, Expedition 16, STS-120, STS-131, Expedition 15, STS-117), and asked them the hard-hitting hygiene questions I’m sure they’ve worked their whole lives to answer.

What was the hardest part about changing up your daily routine for "getting ready"? What did you miss the most?

Stott: I tried to appreciate my time in space for the adventure it was. I think if you go into it that way, you will enjoy it so much more; actually, I think the philosophy applies to pretty much anything in life. While things were different, they really weren't that much different. I don't wear makeup every day anyway, so that wasn't a problem. "Doing my hair" really meant washing it every day after working out, letting it dry while looking like Medusa, and then pulling it back in a ponytail. For me, with long hair, the ponytail was important. There is so much Velcro everywhere and little fans running that you can easily get your hair caught in something or pulled while floating around (kind of a cool problem to have). It was fun, though, to have pictures taken with your hair floating around—gives a pretty neat visual of the 0g [zero gravity] environment that we're in.

Getting dressed was also really fun; in space, you really can put on your pants both legs at one time.

Anderson: I missed a nice warm shower and shave at the sink the most. Even though I took towel baths and did shave with a razor and shaving cream, it was a much different “getting ready” template [compared to] that on Earth with gravity.

It seems like even the tiniest of steps in your routine have to be a thoughtful process—like cutting your nails. Did this start to drive you crazy?

Stott: You do have to be a lot more considerate of the environment you're in, especially with respect to the impacts of 0g and floating. Cutting your nails is a perfect example. Cutting your hair is another. For both of these, you have to be very thoughtful and deliberate about how you do it. The last thing you want is little pieces of nails or lots of tiny little pieces of hair floating around in the air. So when we cut our nails or hair, we do it with some kind of vacuum system or air filter inlet involved. The way we cut our hair is with electric clippers that have a vacuum hose attached to them, a lot like the Flowbee I used to see advertised on TV. It sucks up the hair clippings as you're making the cuts.

It never drove me crazy at all, though. I think that was because I expected it to be different and it was part of the adventure. I don't think it would have been as fun if everything was the same as it is down here on Earth.

Anderson: Didn’t drive me crazy, but one had to be aware of routine things performed in zero gravity. Cutting nails, for example, was the same as on earth, but care must be taken or one of the fragments would shoot across the station. Usually, these things would be collected by the filters, but depending on who you flew with, and their personal tolerance for “grossness,” you could get your space friends upset with your perceived lack of hygiene practices!

What was the one thing you forgot most frequently or cut out altogether? Were you psyched to take a hot shower on Earth?

Stott: I don't remember really cutting anything out altogether; I did reduce the number of times I shaved my legs to about once a week, just because that did have a lot of overhead and took a lot of time (with no running water, you basically have to wipe the blade clean with a paper towel after every swipe and the overall cleanup is pretty cumbersome). Electric razors didn't work well at all for shaving legs (just like here).

I did really enjoy the hot shower when I got home, but honestly didn't really miss it while I was in space. [It was] basically a fancy sponge bath. The way fluids work in 0g makes it pretty fun. You take a bag of hot water, squeeze out a big ball of it, push your arm through the ball of water—the water sticks to your arm like a glove—take your wet washcloth with soap or your bar of soap and rub it on your arm, wipe off with towel, put arm through another ball of water, wipe dry. Works great. You can do this or just slowly squeeze the water onto any part of your body and it will stay there until you wipe it off.

Mr. Anderson, how did the men shave?

Anderson: Same as I shaved on Earth, but with no running water. I used a Gillette Mach 3 razor and what they call Space Gel. It’s really Edge shaving cream without the label (no advertising on ISS). The pain here was that you had to clean your razor blades. I did this with a simple gauze wipe. Each time I shaved, after a few strokes, I would wipe down the blade with the gauze pad.

Then, when finished, the pad went into what we call wet (i.e. stinky, gross) trash. That trash bag could be closed at the top until full, at which time it would be placed into a bigger/sealable bag and disposed of in the Russian Progress Cargo Ship. That ship would eventually undock and burn up re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, but as long as it was on the station, it was a stinky place!

I would change to new blades every two or three days. I tried to stretch them out, as resupply space/weight can sometimes be critical (e.g. recent cargo ship launch failures).

Did you wear deodorant? Were fragrances and perfumes of all kinds limited?

Stott: I did wear deodorant. Seemed to work great. After the fancy sponge bath, the deodorant felt good. Also, it was amazing how long clothes stayed clean. If your body was clean, the clothes would stay clean for a long time because they basically float on you. They don't hang/rub on you like they do here, so they don't get as much of the oils from your body on them. I wore the same pair of khaki shorts for three months and they were fine (and they really were fine—I wasn't just convincing myself they were fine).

Fragrances are discouraged, so pretty much everything is of the "fragrance-free" variety. Most fragrances are limited for a couple reasons: in a relatively confined space not wanting to irritate other crew members, and also because the system that keeps the air clean can't handle certain chemicals. Have to admit that I did miss the scent of different things; the inside of the space station is pretty neutral, like an air-conditioned room. Smells of food or people or the different scents of the modules were really all you'd notice or get used to. It was interesting to me that the different station modules did have a different smell to them (none bad, just different); you could float through different parts of the station with your eyes closed and tell where you were just by the smell or feel of the place. .

I've read that you get to bring your own brand of toothpaste. What was your go-to? How long did it take to brush? Can you floss in space?

Anderson: I used Colgate whitening toothpaste, with all the requisite factory additives. (I think it whitened, strengthened my teeth, and if I remember correctly, it also made julienne fries!) You can use whatever you want; [it was like a] good after-meal breath mint! It took me same amount of time to brush in space as it did on Earth, so no big deal, really. Since I swallowed [the toothpaste], I didn’t have to worry about soaking/mopping up all that toothpaste spittle. Much easier to just swallow it… and I’m still ALIVE!

You can floss in space; I flossed every single night I was onboard. Floating satellites of food, set free by the flossing operation, were not so readily sucked up by the ventilation system and numerous filters on board the station.

Were there special procedures or ointments for nicks, scratches, blemishes, etc., or do you just roll as you would on Earth?

Anderson: Pretty much “rolled” like you would on earth. We had the basics, but sometimes, if it was a bit more serious, you might have to go into the medical kit. For that, it was always requested that you first consult with the flight docs on the ground, to which they would usually give their permission. The medical kit had some pretty significant stuff in it (medication-wise), so its contents (again, think resupply and medicine expiration) were monitored closely.

I don't know if this is a stupid question, so bear with me, but do you worry about SPF or the sun? Obviously you're not trying to get a tan, but is there a point when you would have to worry about incidental sun exposure?

Anderson: The sun is an interesting thing in that regard. Most of the ISS windows during the 2007 timeframe when I flew looked to the earth. The possibility of getting any harmful effects from the sun was minimal. We did wear sunglasses on the shuttle when docking to the ISS (if it was in our eyes during approach), but sunblock was not really required.

One of the largest Russian segment windows did not have UV protection (all the others did), so we were cautioned about how long we should look through it. Otherwise, no big deal (at least not for me anyway, but I tended to be a bit cavalier on those type things). The shuttle had a side-looking middeck window that also had no UV shielding, so looking through that window was also “at your own risk.”

Stott: Didn't worry about SPF, although there are some windows that don't have UV protection, so you do limit your time in front of them. Fortunately, the big windows in the Cupola are protected so you can be in there with the horizon-to-horizon view as long as you want.

The real concern with sun exposure is about protecting your eyes. Without the protection of the atmosphere to filter the view, you need to be very careful not to look in the sun's direction. So there are times when we're doing things like robotic operations or vehicle dockings where we have to look out the window regardless of where the sun is; we have special sunglasses we can wear to help protect our eyes.

You can find both Astronaut Nicole Stott on Twitter and Clayton Anderson on Twitter and his website. Oh, and if you’re wondering how you go to the bathroom in space? They've got a video for that and it is incredible.