You’ll see it in almost every aisle of the grocery store. “Kills 100% of germs!” “Keep your home fresh and clean.” “Fresh scent!” Brands have done a fantastic job of selling us the idea that homes must be disinfected, dust-free, and fragrant at all times. We’ve learned to love the “new car smell” and to associate lemon-scented cleaners with sanitization.
Unfortunately, most of those products are full of toxic chemicals, including paragons, phthalates, and 1,4 dioxane. “Fragrance” itself is a phthalate, a known endocrine disruptor with potentially harmful reproductive effects.
With the rise of consumer concern about these chemicals, many companies have released “green” alternatives. But not so fast: check the labels of many cleaning products labeled “natural” or “plant-based” and you’ll still see some of these ingredients. This phenomenon is called “greenwashing,” when brands pretend to offer a safer product. But in reality, the formulas are virtually the same — just wrapped up in green packaging with buzzwords like “eco-friendly.”
How can we — especially the germaphobes among us — unlearn these effects? It starts with changing how we perceive cleanliness.
Clean Marketing Psychology
Humans have a high sense memory. We link sights, sounds, scents, and sensations to our experiences. As infants, we have unusually sensitive perception compared to many other mammals. This is part of our survival instincts: by absorbing so much information at a young age, we form strong associations that help us detect threats and find resources.
These associations are easy to learn but difficult to un-learn. That’s partly because each familiar memory or sensation triggers the same set of neural pathways. This phenomenon is why our brains cling to childhood nostalgia or, for painful memories, produce a stress response. These linkages are called schemas, and they underpin our perception and physiological responses.
Brands have exploited our schemas to promote their products. They’re not just selling an air freshener that happens to be “fresh linen”-scented. They’re tapping into the satisfaction you get from clean laundry, the lovely feeling of slipping in-between fresh sheets. When you think about the most common fragrances used in cleaning and personal care products, you see a similar theme:
- Grass: heavily nostalgic, associated with fun times outdoors on a freshly cut lawn
- Rain: evokes the pleasure of watching soothing rain or enjoying a nice drizzle on a summer day
- Lemons: pulls up memories of lemonade stands and lemon garnishes on delicious food
- Evergreen: reminiscent of thick forests and mountainous terrain
All these fragrances tap into sense memory. The brands want you to feel relaxed, pleasant, and inspired. More importantly, these scents are associated with cleanliness, such as the rain washing the ground or the crisp air of a forest, far from civilization.
Teaching Us to Want Cleanliness
The products themselves are also a marketing ploy. We have been taught that items such as deodorant, toothpaste, dryer sheets, antibacterial sprays, etc. are household essentials. But did you know that many personal care and cleaning products only emerged within the last 60-70 years?
Roll-on deodorant was invented in 1952, while fluoride toothpaste emerged in 1955. The 50s and 60s also saw the debut of scouring powder, fabric softeners, and glass cleaners. Many of these products were developed by Procter & Gamble, which heavily sponsored daytime TV shows catered toward women (hence the name “soap operas”). Their marketing campaigns worked. Before long, consumers (especially women) learned to associate these new products with a clean, happy home (and their favorite shows to boot).
While we tend to assume that people were “dirtier” in past centuries, that’s not entirely accurate. It is true that bathing was not a common occurrence everywhere. In 16th-century Western Europe, baths were actually considered unfashionable or even unhealthy! However, many Mediterranean and Asian societies have cherished the art of bathing, creating elaborate washrooms and steam baths (ahhh.)
When bathing, people used soap — not the liquid concoctions sold as “soap” today but the original soap, which was a blend of animal fats or vegetable oils with alkaline salts. Early formulas blended tallow and ashes. By the 7th century, Mediterranean societies had perfected their olive oil-based soaps — an art form that continues today.
But during World War II, agricultural shortages forced soap companies to seek synthetic alternatives. That’s how chemical detergents were born. And today, you’ll have to go to an artisan market to find soaps made the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, grocery store brands often contain paragons, phthalates, and triclosan (an antibacterial agent linked to thyroid disruption and microbe resistance).
Before this boom of synthetic products, people used truly natural ingredients — for better or worse. Renaissance women moisturized their skin with herbs and honey (but they also applied mercury and lead to whiten it — yikes). Milk baths were popular in the Elizabethan and Baroque eras. At the turn of the 20th century, egg yolks, oatmeal, and olive oil were go-to skincare treatments.
Oral hygiene wasn’t invented in the 20th century, either. In the 17th century, people used rosemary, sage, and vinegar to clean their teeth. There was a dark period when early French dentists advised patients to brush their teeth with urine, but overall, dentistry and toothpaste are anything but recent developments.
In short, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of television allowed these synthetic formulas to be mass-marketed. And in a post-war era where more people were working and had less time for housework, brands were successfully able to sell both comfort and convenience. As globalization continued and diseases spread, germophobia became common as well
All these events altered our perception of cleanliness. It was no longer enough to wash clothes in Castile soap or wipe down tables with vinegar. If it didn’t smell “fresh,” it wasn’t clean. If the countertops didn’t sparkle, they weren’t sanitized. These associations became so strong that people began to consider vinegar, baking soda, and even soap as inadequate for their hygiene needs.
The Rise of “Green” Products
As the environmental movement gained steam, people began to realize the toxic effects of these synthetic chemicals. Not only did they pollute our waterways and soil but also our bodies. The past two decades have seen a lot of momentum toward better regulation of products and even the banning of PFAS. The European Union has gone even further, forcing many companies to remove toxic ingredients from their products.
Unfortunately, there are only so many alternatives to these products’ key features, such as foaming power or a nice smell. It’s ultimately still cheaper to use very similar formulas but with a “green sheen.” Sometimes, they change almost nothing but add some essential oils or vinegar so they can say it’s “made with natural ingredients.” Clorox released a bleach-free disinfectant that uses ethanolamine (a serious irritant for the eyes, skin, and nervous system) and “fragrance” (definitely phthalates). And Windex, famous for its use of multiple toxic ingredients, unashamedly released a branded bottle of vinegar spray.
Many manufacturers will swap out one toxic ingredient for a “natural” option but leave others. For example, Tide’s Purclean is a USDA-certified plant-based product — but sodium borate, 1,4 dioxane, and lauramine oxide are still in the mix. Banana Boat appears to have made some change to become “reef-friendly,” but they still contain ingredients known to harm aquatic life.
And worst of all, some brands will base their entire identity around “green” formulas yet still contain toxic ingredients. Both Method and Simple Green have had class-action lawsuits filed against them for such misleading claims.
In short, it’s difficult to trust many claims of “eco-friendly” or “non-toxic products.”
How Can We Unlearn the Effects of Clean Marketing?
Our sense memory can be unlearned. It just takes a bit of rewiring. When we gain distance from something, we learn how to perceive experiences without it. For example, many people have reported that once they give up sweets for a while, they no longer crave them. It’s similar for these synthetic cleansers and personal care products. After you stop using lemon-scented Lysol, the smell may not seem as pleasant to you. You will no longer associate the squeak of Windex with cleanliness.
The best way to shift your perception is to arm yourself with knowledge — then switch to truly natural alternatives. For example, many pathogens cannot be contracted from surfaces. So, there is little need to thoroughly sanitize your countertops or clothing. It’s far more important to wash your hands regularly, and yes, you can remove microbes with plain old soap. It actually destroys their outer membranes, immediately killing them — no triclosan needed.
For millennia, people used everything from animal fat to honey to vinegar and alcohol to clean themselves and their environments. While we’ve come a long way in terms of hygiene (urine-based mouthwash and lead-based skincare notwithstanding), we’ve also created a truly toxic environment. Excessive use of antibacterial products is creating “superbugs” that are resistant to them. We’re polluting waterways, messing up our hormones, and irritating our skin in the name of “being clean.”
Is the convenience, nice smell, or nostalgia factor really worth it? By adopting a greener lifestyle, we can form new sense memories, such as the association of vinegar with clean windows or an oatmeal-honey face mask with self-care. Our bodies and wildlife will both thank us.
This article was inspired by an interview with Sandra Scheinbaum, a clinical psychologist, nutrition coach, and the founder and CEO of the Functional Medicine Coaching Academy.