Everyday Science: Your Morning Routine

Ever wondered what was really happening while you were washing your face or brushing your teeth? What kind of reactions happen in your food to get it from sad and uncooked to delicious and ready to eat? Well let’s find out.

Hello nerds and nerdicles all! Thanks for sticking around and it’s time for a new series! (In case you missed them: check out the microbe series and DNA series). This month we’re focusing on everyday science, figuring out the science behind some of our day to day activities, and this week we’re starting with your morning hygiene routine.

  1. Waking up

Bet you’ve never thought about the science behind this one. What happens to your body and brain when you move from that comfortable world of sleep to the lively land of the awake? Awakening involves heightened electrical activation in the brain, beginning with the thalamus and spreading throughout the rest of your brain.

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Most people today use an alarm clock to get up at the time that they need. When your alarm goes off, this triggers and electrical response in your brain which causes a number of changes in your body:

  • Your heart rate increases.
  • Your breathing becomes quicker and you take in more air.
  • Your circulation and blood flow increase.
  • Your brain produces different brainwaves.
  • Your eyes open and your body is more aware of external stimuli.
  • All of your organ systems (liver and kidney function, digestion, metabolism) increase back to “waking” values.
  • Your brain is flooded with hormones to decrease your arousal level so you are more likely to wake up and perceive stimuli.

The brainwaves you produce when you’re asleep are totally different from those you produce when you’re awake. During sleep, your brain produce slow wave patterns, called theta waves and delta waves.  The slower the brainwave patterns, the deeper the sleep — a person deep in delta wave sleep is hardest to wake up. An awake and relaxed person generates alpha waves, which are much faster than delta and theta waves, and an alert person generates beta waves, which are about twice as fast.

  1. Brushing those pearly whites

One of the first things most people do every morning (after snoozing the alarm a couple times and eventually rolling out of bed) is head to the bathroom and get rid of that pesky morning breath. But what’s the science behind this lifelong habit, and why does it work?

Well morning breath happens because while you’re asleep, your mouth is producing less saliva. Without saliva there to wash away all the leftover food pieces in your mouth, the bacteria that are hanging around in there start to feed on them and produce volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs). This is where that foul morning smell comes from.  (Hydrogen sulphide, the gas that causes the smell of rotten eggs, is one of the gases produced by these bacteria. Tasty). Creeped out yet? Don’t worry, thanks to two guys named Willoughby D. Miller and Newell Sill Jenkins who were experimenting in the early 1900s, we now have the modern form of toothpaste.  BUT HOW DOES IT WORK?

Toothpaste consists of water and two main compounds: abrasives and fluorides. Abrasives constitute at least 50% of a typical toothpaste, and work with the brushing motion to remove food particles and plaque from your teeth. You can thank abrasives for the shine you see after a good brush, they also help to polish your teeth. Typical abrasives include particles of aluminum hydroxide, calcium carbonate, various calcium hydrogen phosphates, various silicas and zeolites, and hydroxyapatite.

Fluorides are the most popular active ingredient in toothpaste to prevent cavities. Fluoride helps prevent cavities by slowing the breakdown of enamel of your teeth and speeding up the new enamel crystals which are harder, larger and more resistant to acid.

Finally, some toothpastes contain antibacterial agents, which fight the bad-breath causing bacteria. For example, Triclosan, an antibacterial agent which is common in toothpastes in the UK, helps reduce tartar and bad breath.


The combination of your brushing motion, and all the reactions happening between your toothpaste and the stinky bacteria, is why your mouth feels and smells clean and fresh after a good brushing. And if you’re the type to swish with Listerine or another mouthwash after brushing, that mouthwash is an antiseptic agent, which works to fight any residual bacteria. There are some things you should know about mouthwash though, namely:

  • Mouthwash should not be used immediately after brushing the teeth so as not to wash away the beneficial fluoride residue left from the toothpaste.
  • There is now sufficient evidence to accept the proposition that developing oral cancer is increased or contributed to by the use of alcohol-containing mouthwashes.
  1. Shower Time

For most people, a shower is usually the next step in starting your day. Other than a guaranteed way to smell fresh when greeting the morning, you’re also washing away the dirt from the night before. But what happens when you shower?


Well, most people tend to shower with soap (or some derivative). Soap, in its simplest form, is a salt formed from a fatty acid. (For the non-scientific readers, broaden your idea of “salt” from the tableside version to mean a compound formed when you react an acid and a base. But that’s a whole other day’s lesson). Anyway, the important thing that soap does is it allows compounds that aren’t usually able to dissolve in water (likes oils and fat) become able to dissolve. The soap-water molecule mix forms tiny pockets called micelles which trap the oil and fat molecules and hide them from actually touching the water. When you wash off, all the oils and fats are washed away inside the micelles. Dirt and grime and other solid particles and washed away when you’re scrubbing up, while soap gets rid of the oils and rest of the gunk. And that’s it!


For those of you who prefer shower gels to soap, you should know that shower gels don’t actually contain any soap at all. Shower gels are a combination of water and a detergent (think broader than laundry detergent). Detergents basically operate on the same principle as soaps in terms of solubilizing (dissolving) insoluble compounds like fats and oils. Shower gels are also pH balanced (meaning they’re the perfect mix of acidity/alkalinity for your skin) and some brands (usually the ones for men) contain menthol, which gives a cooling and stimulating sensation on the skin. Shower gel has certain advantages over soap because it is less irritating to the skin, it forms suds better, and (Thank God!) doesn’t leave as much residue on the skin or in the bathtub after usage.

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The next time you’re getting ready for work/school and going through the motions of your morning routine, take a minute and think about some of the science behind everything going on. It can blow your mind how much is happening in such a little bit of time, and you can’t even see it! And stay tuned next week when we look at the science behind preparing some of our favourite meals. Cheers!


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