On Wednesday, Sophie Hinchliffe cleaned a toilet in her Essex home with Harpic Active Fresh liquid, and sprayed its gleaming flush plate with Dettol All in One disinfectant spray (“kills colds and flu viruses”). Then she shared the story with her 3.8m Instagram followers.
Mrs Hinch, as she is known, is the UK’s top “cleanfluencer” and a best-selling author, whose video tips, such as how to clean a washing machine with a sonic scrubber and the scented disinfectant Zoflora (to the sound of Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”), have an eager following. Now, she has company in scrubbing her surfaces thoroughly.
Disinfectant is not an exciting product. The most famous brands were invented decades ago — Dettol in 1933, Zoflora in 1922, and Lysol in 1889 (Lysol proved its worth during the 1892 Hamburg cholera outbreak and again in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic). While varieties have proliferated, the basic formula is little changed.
But hygiene is having a moment, thanks to Covid-19 and the urge to sanitise. Reckitt Benckiser, which owns Dettol, Lysol and Harpic, announced a 13 per cent rise in year-on-year sales for its latest quarter this week, while Procter & Gamble, the company whose eponymous founders launched Ivory soap in 1879, said that quarterly home care sales rose by more than 30 per cent.
For companies accustomed to tepid growth, it is a revelation, but will the cleaning boom end when the fear of infection fades? The deeper doubt is whether all this sterilising is too much of a good thing. Cleaning fluid contains strong chemicals and doctors had to warn against the toxicity of bleach after US president Donald Trump mused about injecting it to kill the virus.
There is more going on than the rush to hoard sanitiser at the start of the pandemic: P&G’s revenue growth rate was higher from July to September than in spring. The shift to cleanliness has accompanied greater homeliness — sales of dishwasher pods and laundry detergent have risen as people spend less time eating out and in the office.
“The healthy, normal, fortunate adult in our culture is largely satisfied in his safety needs,” the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in 1943. He had the luxury of being in New York and not being bombed, but he had a point. Cities were policed, penicillin was discovered, and pandemics were less of a threat.
Maslow argued that once essentials such as having enough to eat and being safe from war and plague were satisfied, human needs climbed a pyramid towards belonging, accomplishment, and self-expression. That is how consumption has evolved — from soaps to vitamin pills, from hygiene to gym memberships and yoga classes.
The virus has pushed us back down Maslow’s pyramid towards the physiological and psychological basics. We will resume going to sporting events and on foreign holidays when we can, but the urge to make a clean and comfortable home for our families will endure.
That is good for companies such as P&G and Unilever, whose customers were defecting to newer brands that offered organic ingredients and greater individuality. In the rush to safety, the history and familiarity of the old brands are strengths.
But it begs the question of how much cleaning is enough. Before the pandemic, families with two partners at work and less time for chores had adopted the “maintenance clean” — a quick catch-up rather than a day-long domestic slog. In February, P&G launched a cleaning spray called Microban 24 for that use.
Mrs Hinch is less of an outlier now in having a cupboard full of cleaning fluids and granules that she calls Narnia. This means more virus-killing chemicals are being sprayed and shaken around the home. “I do this often, so it does not build up too much,” she remarks about her washing machine scrub.
Coronavirus: could the world have been spared?
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 1m people across the globe. But could it have been averted? A unique FT investigation examines what went wrong — and right — as Covid-19 spread across the world. Explore the series
The active ingredient in Zoflora and others is benzalkonium chloride, one of a group of disinfecting chemicals called QACs, or quats. They have been popular for so long because they work — they contain carbon atoms that breach the membranes around viruses and bacteria, and kill them.
More than 200 of 420 products recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency against coronavirus contain quats. But they can cause asthma and irritate skin, although some anti-microbial soaps still contain them. They can also inhibit sewage treatment and scientists worry that overuse may encourage antibiotic resistance.
One US study of homes in Indiana in June found quats in more than 90 per cent of dust samples and noted that exposures were higher in households that cleaned more often. “The increased use of household disinfectants and other cleaning agents containing QACs during the Covid-19 pandemic is of significant concern,” it concluded.
Protecting against Covid-19 by being hygienic is a sensible response and fulfils the human instinct for safety. But while no one in their right mind injects bleach, washing obsessively has its own risks. Mrs Hinch’s home looks fearsomely clean, but some microbes are worth preserving.