Body Cleansing at the Burn

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A Practical Guide to:
Body Cleansing at the Burn
Tech BodyWashing 001.jpg
Ancient Greeks using a strigil.
Relevance: All Burns

Body Cleansing at Burns brings together technical information about, and practical experiences of, maintaining body cleanliness at Burning Man and Regional Burns. Generally Burns do not provide shower facilities, nor specific advice about body cleansing, except - in nearly all cases - to make it clear that water that has been used for body cleansing is 'grey water', and must be disposed of in accordance with the applicable rules of each Burn. In almost all cases that involves participants or contractors removing grey water from the Burn site, or evaporating it.

It follows from the logistics involved in removing grey water from site, or evaporating it, that there must be the greatest possible economy in the use of water for body cleansing at Burns, even in situations where there is an abundant supply of water. In the rare instance that there is abundant provision for the removal of grey water (such as in a city sized reticulated sewerage system) there is still a case for our Burn activities to have the lightest possible footprint on the environment, and to model cleansing behaviors at the Burn which we and others can follow 'outside the Burn'. It is important to note that not all body cleansing activities involve the use of water.

Body Cleansing Policies and Practices at Burns Worldwide

There are very few published policies or even guidelines specifically relating to Body Cleansing from any Burn, but there are a number of policies relating to food handling, grey water, water carting and non-commodification which can have a bearing on Body Cleansing. It should also be noted that each Burn expresses itself in the context of its environment.

Our current knowledge is that no Burn anywhere in the world has immediate access to an appropriately sized and efficient waste water treatment plant, so that all body cleansing systems involving the use of water are under pressure to minimise water usage for practical reasons relating to the cost of conveying grey water off-site, or the limitations of grey water evaporation systems. Even were these circumstances not limiting, the commitment to MOOP and environmental sustainability would dictate that Burns minimize both water usage and grey water waste production.

Model Body Cleansing Statement for Burns

A 'Model Policy Statement' for Body Cleansing does not currently exist. There are a collection of policies and community regulations and health considerations that are applicable in this field, and it may be useful to draw them together in a single statement, even if it involves duplicating requirements expressed elsewhere. Such a model statement might read:

  1. If appropriately sized and effective black and grey water facilities exist on-site, use them.
  2. If such black Water faclities do not exist on-site, use approved methods to take black water off-site for appropriate processing
  3. If such grey Water facilities do not exist on-site, either evaporate the grey water or take it off-site for appropriate processing . do not dispose of the grey water by mixing it into the black water processing on site, or with any black water being taken off site.
  4. Minimize water used on body cleansing consistent with specific requirements - responding to chemical contamination, maintaining hygiene for food handling, medical staff, dermatological conditions, etc
  5. Minimize water carry-in and ensure compliance with standards for conveying and storing potable water and only obtain water from appropriate sources
  6. Water used in body cleansing will be regarded as grey water regardless of whether soap is used or not.
  7. Wherever possible utilise non-water based body cleansing systems such as dry powder cleaning, oiling & scraping and non-water washes.
  8. Give realistic consideration to cleaning less frequently or as extensively while you are at the Burn.

Body Contamination and Body Cleansing

Any consideration of removing 'foreign' material from the body starts with an understanding of what that material is, how it got there, whether it can be avoided in the first place, and in what circumstances or at what interval should it be regarded as undesirable or hazardous. The Burner should also consider whether they actually need a wash, or whether they are conforming to pressures which are ultimately commercial and against their own best interests. Contamination does exist, and cleansing is necessary to some degree at some stage for everyone. But the Burn is an opportunity to find the line between what you need to do for yourself, and what other's would have you believe you need to do.

Avoiding (sustained) contact with contaminants

  • Wear socks and shoes rather than thongs or going barefoot. Change socks daily or twice daily.
  • Use gloves when appropriate, but do not substitute this for good hand hygiene (see below) and be aware of cross contamination when using gloves
  • Scrape off salt lake material, mud, body paint and glitter prior to washing with water or water subsitutes. Olive oil may assist in the scraping
  • Shit either squatting on the toilet rim (in portaloos) or standing over the toilet bowl with bent knees (a standing-squat). Don't squat on ceramic toilets - for obvious safety reasons. Not only is there evidence that this is a more natural position for evacuating the bowels, it can reduce the amount of wiping required.

Skin preparation and odour management

Inner clothing made from natural fabrics (cotton underwear, wool socks) wick up body oils and sweat and sloughed skin, helping to prevent rashes and unpleasant body odours. Changing your inner clothing may have a more significant cleaning effect than showering.

While reducing showering may encourage the establishment of a healthier low-odour skin biota, this process would take longer to complete than most Burn events. Consequently Burners may wish to commence these regimes up to 4 to 6 weeks prior to the Burn, or use their normal deodorants or choose from a wide range of 'natural' deodorant substitutes. Baking Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda) is an weak disinfectant and effective at absorbing odours and is included in several deodorant preparations, as either a dry powder or in solution.

Use of talcum powder or barrier creams can not be recommended due to doubts about their effectiveness in maintaining skin health, and potential health problems associated with these products.

Some Burn participants have suggested that not washing, and being in the presence of others who have not washed, is a playa virtue, in that it challenges our views and prejudices about what is dirt and cleanliness, arguing that much of what we believe is actually a result of subtle brainwashing by the billion dollar body cleansing product and services industry. There is merit in this argument, and the Burn is an opportunity to see what it possible and to reset your own - and other's - thinking about where the line is between 'what do I actually need' and 'this is just marketing trying to sell me something I don't need'. Your main criteria should be how you feel (physically and emotionally), rather than how you (believe) you smell. The only exception to this general guide is that people who have diminished skin sensation due to either nerve damage or circulatory problems (including diabetics) should pay extra attention to the condition of their skin.

Circumstances requiring cleansing (Hands)

The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends hand washing occur:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage (or soiled clothes)

Methods of Cleansing (Hands)


The CDC has excellent advise on hand cleaning:

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water, turn off the tap and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap.
  3. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  4. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  5. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  6. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. They note that alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs and might not remove harmful chemicals - nor are hand sanitizers as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy (particularly after food and handling). Alcohol based sanitizers are generally preferred to non-alcohol based products. People using products containing triclosan should be aware of its affects, although these effects would likely be minimal over the duration of a Burn event. Tea Tree Oil (oil of melaleuca) has some effectiveness as a hand sanitizer.

When using any soap/water substitute hand sanitizer:

  • Carefully follow the instructions that accompany this product.
  • Be mindful of the possibility of skin irritation and allergies.
  • Ideally use a pump pack that can be operated with the elbow.
  • STORE OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN and supervise their use of these products.
  • Note that neither alcohol-based nor Tea Tree hand sanitizers have been implicated in promoting treatment-resistant bacteria.

Circumstances requiring further body cleansing

Reports suggest that in normal circumstances a person in a relatively sedentary situation might need a shower only every three days. It has been suggested that fewer showers - particularly hot showers and soaps - helps establish a population of skin bacteria (the skin biota) which are healthier, have anti-bacterial qualities, and which will suppress body odour. There are commonsense exceptions to this recommended regime, as follows:

1. If you believe you have been contaminated with any chemical powder or liquid
  • Ask someone to alert a Theme Camp or Ranger and call an emergency on the CB Radio network.
  • Request immediate assistance to bring water and (if forthcoming) rinse yourself with it. Note that bottles of mineral water are sterile and can be used as an emergency eyewash.
  • Proceed to nearest emergency shower.
2. If you are experiencing a rash or discomfort, particularly in the region of the groin or bottom.
  • It is more likely that the discomfort is caused by excess sweat, or by fecal residue or other exudates. However, be aware that you may be experiencing an allergic reaction to some element in a new cleansing regime you have adopted since you arrived at the Burn.
  • Gently wash the affected area and then keep it dry and 'aired'. Use clean, natural fibre (eg cotton) inner clothes and change them at least daily
  • In the case of a persistent rash or irritation you could use a baby cream such as Benpanthan, Paw Paw cream, or if the condition persists, self refer to the Medical Centre.
3. If you are about to use a Sauna or Sweat Lodge, or receive a massage
  • Heavy loads of dirt or dust or body paint should be removed prior to any of these activities.
4. If you are about to engage in intimate contact with others, particularly sexual contact
  • Despite shelf-full's of advice about the dangers of infecting your mouth, anus or vagina with 'bacteria' if it is not not thoroughly washed - and protected against unwashed sundry objects such as penises and fingers - your body's natural bacterial flora is pretty robust and self healing. That said, introducing dust,sand, body paint or glitter into any body cavity is uncomfortable and potentially irritating.
  • Side-note #1: Remember, however, to carefully wash sex toys after and before use, and where possible use them with a condom.
  • Side-note #2: Always, always use a condom unless you are absolutely sure of each other's sexual history and STI free status.

Methods of further Body Cleansing

All methods of body cleansing, with the exception of decontamination in the event of a chemical spill - must acknowledge the basic principle of economy. If the situation is not constrained by consideration of minimizing the production of grey water, then there is the overriding principle of minimizing our footprint on this planet. In environments where there is plentiful supply of water for showering, and entirely adequate methods of treating grey water this principle still applies. Participation in a Burn is intended to be an extreme and experimental experience, and even if nature does not provide those conditions, we can aim for them with our intentions and our activities - including in how we approach body cleansing.

In the case where Burns do not provide body cleansing services there is a natural and commendable impulse to provide them as a part of a Theme Camp offering to all participants, or to their own members. A cautionary note is warranted here. While an individual would be hard pressed to bring a high water use facility to a Burn - but of course they can if they are in a bus or RV - Theme Camps may wish to distinguish themselves or out-compete each other to provide as 'normal' as possible a shower facility to the general participants or to their own members. This is not a playa virtue, both in terms of normalising the playa, and in failing to usefully model low water use body cleansing practices that participants could usefully 'take away' with them after the Burn.

It should also be noted that an ambition to provide a body cleansing services to participants at a Burn involves a very unpredictable take up. Any attempt to provide such a service would require close supervision, or self limiting provisions, in order to prevent wastage of water. Anyone setting up such a service takes upon themselves the responsibility of not only providing the facility and the water, but the supervision in order to ensure that the rate of usage of water, and the management of the grey water waste was done with the utmost economy and care

Low water usage body cleansing methods divide naturally into three categories, oiling & scraping, dry powder, and micro-spray & flannel. Each in described in turn here, detailing methods and historical precedents, and some observation on the effectiveness and frequency they might be employed.

WARNING: Consideration of any body cleansing method that you are not currently using should give regard to the possibility of allergies or reactions to the chemical or mechanical processes involved in these methods. Extra consideration should be given in respect of small children or persons with existing dermatological conditions. You are advised to experiment with these methods before arriving at the Burn event.

1. Oiling & Scraping. This method was used by ancient Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. There are plentiful portraits and stories of atheletes using the sickle shaped tool known as the strigil to scrape dead skin cells, dirt and oil from the skin. It is also fairly clear that the skin was oiled (almost certainly with olive oil) before scraping. This practice was part of the Roman bathing ritual, evidenced by the discovering of strigils amongst the ruins of many Roman bathouses. What is not clear is at what point in the bathing process the oiling and scraping occurred. Some suggest it was after the soaking hot and cold baths. Against this is the expectation that Romans being meticulously clean would actually wash the dirt from their bodies before soaking - as do the Japanese today.

Modern practice still involves using Olive Oil - the finest grade you can afford. A strigil is almost impossible to find, and modern 'skin scrapers' are very expensive. A metal cookie cutter has been suggested. In all cases tho tool should only lightly abrade the skin, removing oil, dirt and dead skin, but not causing bruising, roughening or bleeding. It is almost certain that the use of the tool is enhanced if the skin in shaven or bare. And - as depicted repeatedly - it is certain that the use of the strigil over the entire body is best achieved with the assistance of others. Several sequences are suggested here, the most effective will only become apparent over time:

Possible sequence #1. Steam - oil - scrape (with or without final steam and/or rinse)
Possible sequence #2. Micro-Spray - oil - scrape (with or without final steam and/or rinse)
Possible sequence #3. Oil - scrape (with or without final steam and/or rinse)

The classic sickle shaped strigil - while possible easily manufactured - only exists in museums today. A search using the term will find some modern substitutes. It has also been noted that a steel cookie cutter might make an acceptable substitute. A knife blade or 'straight-razor' must on no account be used, and a single or multi-blade safety razer will clog up almost instantly. When scraping follow the lay of any body hair, avoid scraping near any moles, cut or abrasions and use only as much force as required to lift the film of oil, skin cells and dirt from the body. Dispose of the scraped material carefully.

Several websites which promote the cleaning benefits of oiling suggest finishing with a microfibre cloth. It should be noted that this suggestion is in the context of the home, where the cloth might readily be rinsed or washed. Others have suggested finishing with a disposable paper towel, although in that case the tougher hand wiping towel (used in institutional bathrooms) rather that the kitchen paper towel would be more effective. Obviously minimizing the use of paper towel would be a playa virtue, but in itself it is relatively easily contained and destroyed. It is self evident that a dry powder or flannel method would be required to deal with hair on the head, and underarms or groins that are not fully shaved.


2. Dry powder washing. Particularly for long hair.

3. Micro Spray. Hand pump spray bottles reduces not only amount exiting through spray nozzle, but creates effort in making spray occur.

4. Sponge and Bucket. Japanese pre-soak model of bathing involving seated washing, rinse with ladle, sponge and rinse. Seating allows greater control of application of water to body. Small ladle reduces consumption of water

In all cases, washing in a warm environment may reduce water requirement. My suspicion is that most water 'use' is actually to convey warmth. If we provide alternate warmth (space heating or infrared heating) we provide circumstances for micro-spray washing to succeed. At the moment acceptance of micro-wash is limited because it is uncomfortable, rather than because it is ineffective.

Body Cleansing as an Burn Event

Camps pooling their 'left over' water at the end of the Blaze and using that water in a controlled shower environment with waste capture and cartage - essentially turning the showers ON for one day of the Blaze (with controls to limit water usage).

Grey Water Collection, Storage and disposal

Summary. See separate page for detailed discussion (to be developed...) Role of filtering and pre-processing. Role of bleach as a temporary measure. Avalability of free 20litre containers - recommended due to weight/size suitability, and for strength and sealing. Brooke Andrews and the Earth Guardians are developing concepts, information and programs in this area. See Jilakin Rock City Earth Guardians

Selling the concepts, encouragement and enforcement

Obligations of ticket sellers to inform. Managing expectations downward from previous Blazes. Selling the 'moral' argument, countering the logical arguments (eg 'it's farmland, it's hardly pristine already..'). Methods of encouragement, signage, greeters role, creating models of behaviour (dirt is virtuous...), enforcement - scaled response to breaches, methods of detection of breaches. Feedback on breaches similar to the current 'post Blaze Moop reports. How to address individual (wild) campers, how to address theme camps. Also selling the context of the decision.

Commmunity Context

Kulin (move this to specific Burning Swan page later...) . Do we have a role in funding upgrade to Kulin waste treatment to process our black water? Because we STILL have a blackwater disposal problem even if we take care of our own grey water. Could we create a fund to assist with that by offering showers-for-fee at the Kulin Swimming Pool? What is the role of the State Government and Royalties for Regions in assisting with upgrades to waste treatment plants. The Blaze at Kulin is a significant element in the Wheatbelt 'economy' (even if we don't use money onsite). Matters to consider...


Links (unsorted at this stage)