Household cleaning products and their annoyances

Something that annoys me about household cleaning products is that they’re often not labelled ‘cleaners’. It’s usually ‘cleanser’. A one-letter difference that carries a world of advantage for sales. Though to my mind it shouldn’t. My problem is that ‘cleansing’ is also used as a euphemism for genocide. You know – ‘ethnic cleansing’. One of the worst crimes humanity can commit.

The annoying part is that household cleaners are labelled with the same word for the same linguistic reason: to ‘cleanse’ is a word that carries emotional overtones of ‘purity’. What marketing departments are playing on is the concept of not just cleanliness, but of a higher level of dirt-free purity through using the product. Users are not merely cleaning, they are cleansing.

This is nothing new – both the concept and the marketing technique has been embedded in western society since the early Victorian period. Back then it was not enough for rising nineteenth century middle-class city dwellers to merely keep themselves clean: they and their homes had to be cleansed. The moral layer of the concept set them aside, morally, from the grubby poor, and the spiritual side was explicitly stated: ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Inevitably, nineteenth century capitalists – buoyed by-products of the gas industry such as coal tar soap, invented in 1860 by William Wright – actively reinforced the trend.

Thus Victorian-era families scrubbed their floors daily – sometimes twice daily – with baking soda and water, flicked feather dusters around every surface, buffed and polished brasswork, smeared beeswax-and-linseed oil into furniture, scrubbed windows with vinegar, and boiled their laundry in carbolic soap, all to reinforce their sense of virtue. The social aspect gained scientific justification on the back of germ theory, also emerging at the time. But while some products actually did have antiseptic properties, other products were less scrupulous and the whole social movement created wide opportunities for capitalists of the day, unfettered by much regulation, who managed to convince a rising urban middle class that buying their cleaning products was a road to feeling virtuous.

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That approach continued into the twentieth century, increasingly packed with new technologies and chemistries. These days we are barraged with products that ‘cleanse’ things we cannot see or detect – down to products being advertised as able to kill specific kinds of bacteria or viruses. There are ‘anti-bacterial’ products that ‘cleanse’ downstream of the human living space, such as dishwasher drain pipes. There’s even a brand of vacuum cleaner apparently able to count invisible dust particles, so you know you are ‘cleansing’ even if you can’t see any difference between before and after.

In short, advertising still leans on the emotional response and concept of feeling virtuous by cleaning, this time extended into a realm humans cannot detect with their own senses. And the science? Yes, humans do need a good degree of ‘clean’. It helps control disease, helps reduce risk of infection, and so on. These days, with a pandemic raging, it’s wise to err on the cautious side.

What worries me is not the principle of being clean, but the extent of overkill, especially now that ‘anti-bacterial’ soaps are being sold as necessary. Actually, soap-type products without ‘anti-bacterial’ properties have always been able to dislodge micro-organisms and mechanically break their structures. That’s why washing hands with soap has always worked. The problem is that the usual anti-bacterial additives (typically sodium benzylchloride) only kill what they can kill. If we keep pouring it through our households and down the drains, all we’ll do is breed micro-organisms it can’t kill. What then?

I suppose there will be 50 percent sodium hypochlorite cleansers (don’t breathe the vapour, don’t get it on your clothes or skin, and wear goggles). Or I have this vision of 23rd century households being sold ‘cleansing’ products such as aqua regia. ‘Royal water’. It’ll do a dandy job of killing resistant-to-everything micro-organisms. All? Why yes, all. How? Because it’s a combination of two acids I won’t name and dissolves virtually everything it touches – benchtops, paint, lungs, skin….

Sound hyperbolic? Maybe, but I found out the other day that a standard garden weed-killer, sold right here in clean and green New Zealand, contains N,N′-dimethyl-4,4′-bipyridinium dichloride. Which is fine and dandy, except this is actually paraquat. Ouch. Apparently it’s now – er – safe. (Really? Really?)

So yeah, as current ‘anti-bac’ products generate populations of bacteria, viruses and moulds that can’t be killed that way, so I expect manufacturers needing to keep their profits high and shareholder happy will swing to new ‘cleansing’ products that are increasingly nasty, thus enabling advertisers to correctly state what it kills; and which make the users feel virtuous. At least until they dissolve.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

5 thoughts on “Household cleaning products and their annoyances

  1. Ouch indeed. I had to look up what Paraquat is as we don’t use any chemicals in the garden and the barest minimum – toilet cleaner – inside. While I was looking this particular Nasty up, I discovered that it’s been listed for ‘reconsideration’ here…since 1995. In all that time it’s only just reached the ‘assessment’ stage which is ‘in progress’.

    What the????

    I’ve never considered myself to be a greenie, but I grew up eating food cooked from scratch. Thanks Mum. And breathing Mortein fumes. Also thanks Mum. As a result I use a fly swatter on the flies and other, equally manual techniques out in the garden.

    To the heart of your post though, money is capable of working miracles, apparently. 😦

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    1. Yes, money certainly does work miracles, especially at that annoying intersection between science, safety and the corporate profit motive! I often wonder whether the current epidemic of ‘allergies’ is a result of all the chemicals poured into our living environments – cleaners, foods, etc. The generation of the 1930s-50s didn’t have these problems to the same extent.

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      1. I totally agree. My extended family suffers from a lot of allergies, but living out here in the clean urban/country fringe, we only get a touch of hayfever in spring now.
        The thing that makes me want to tear my hair out is that all those so-called convenience ‘cleansers’ don’t actually work as well as the old fashioned ones – bi-carb, vinegar and soap. It’s such a con, and it’s literally killing us.

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  2. Kinda reminds of various roach poisons that are quite effective, until roaches are found eating the stuff for sustenance. When roaches start eating acids, we are in seriously deep doodoo…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that’s certainly an issue here. I live too far south for the roaches to be a major issue, but they’re bad in my home town of Napier. I have had relatives there who’ve been battling them relentlessly. The damn things lap up every poison around and come back for more. On personal experience they are almost indestructible. (This said, I think Mythbusters actually tested the idea that roaches were radiation-resistant and found that yeah, they can take a hit that would kill a human in seconds – but mealy bugs are better.)

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