The Changing Culture of Clean

Louise Shanahan

Our hygiene habits have changed drastically throughout history.

Prized in Roman times, cleaning practices were met with scepticism by Medieval societies, before falling back in public favor when army doctors connected the dots between hygiene and infection in the early twentieth century. Since then, the growth of consumer cleaning products has created a self-fulfilling cleanliness culture, to the point that many of us are guilty of being too clean.

But more recently, our attitude to dirt is starting to shift. Thanks to brands like Activia raising the profile of ‘friendly bacteria’, more people understand the benefits of a thriving microbiome (the ecosystem that keeps our bodies healthy). We’re learning that over-cleaning can create a difficult environment for them to survive, and revisiting our accepted norms around hygiene.

So how has the culture of clean evolved to where it is now?

The Evolution of Cleanliness Culture

Some hygiene practices date back thousands of years. Soap is thought to have been used as far back as 2800 BC, while the ancient Greeks and Romans were known for their public bath houses. Bathing was a social activity, ritual or sign of wealth, as well as being motivated by hygiene.1

But in medieval times, shared baths began to be associated with illness. Believing dirty skin offered protection against diseases like the Bubonic Plague, people became less enthusiastic about washing.2 Dental hygiene was more popular – vinegar, mint, powdered fish bones and even sulphuric acid were used over the years!3

Renewed interested in the health benefits of cleanliness came when soldiers in the late 19th century discovered washing with soap and water reduced sickness. The ‘germ theory of disease’ led doctors to encourage hand-washing to prevent disease.4 They didn’t really know why it worked, but it did!

Increasing access to clean, running water meant more people could take advantage of this new knowledge, though for most Americans and Europeans, bathing was a weekly activity until well into the 20th century.

Marketing a Nationwide Hygiene Habit

In fact, it was the advertising industry that nudged us into washing more frequently. As washing with soap became standard practice, new products were created to meet the needs of a society that was becoming more concerned with personal cleanliness. This coincided with the growth of the advertising industry, meaning people were exposed to adverts for these products more frequently, and the culture of cleanliness became ingrained.5

Thanks to provocative slogans for soap, mouthwash and deodorants, natural body odors started to become socially unacceptable.6

As new worries were woven into the public consciousness, the number and range of products snowballed, moving quickly from one basic product for body and hair, to different kinds of shampoo and conditioner, to ‘specialist’ products for individual body parts. Some products were even re-marketed for personal hygiene, such as a well-known mouthwash, which started life as a surgical disinfectant.7

Messages like ‘lather, rinse and repeat’, which we still see today, encouraged consumers to wash more frequently, and buy twice as many bottles in the process.

The desire to conform is a powerful driver of behaviour, and over-cleaning became a cultural norm. Public information campaigns, such as those run by the Cleanliness Institute, promoted hand-washing and hygiene awareness, which boosted soap consumption and helped make cleanliness a nationwide habit for years to come.8

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be clean – it does reduce risk of infection.9 But unfortunately, a lot of what we’ve been doing doesn’t help with hygiene, and could hinder a healthy biome.

Over the last few years, it’s this message that’s becoming more mainstream.

Rebalancing our Attitude to Dirt

The next phase, then, is marked by a growing recognition in the power of the microbiome, triggered in part by food marketing.  

As trends in natural health, organic food and green living started to grow, so too did interest in the idea of boosting our health through what we eat.

Noticing the public’s enthusiasm for foods with added nutritional benefits, in 2004 the makers of Activia yoghurt began marketing it as a way of promoting digestive health. And the key ingredient? Live probiotics. Within a year, around 75% of the 8 million people living in Quebec (where Activia was launched) had tried the yogurt, and the notion of ‘good bacteria’ was lodged in the public consciousness.10,11

Since then, a glut of probiotic-infused products hit our supermarket shelves, as well as a resurgence in traditional fermented foods, like kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut, which can support a healthy gut biome.

As the trend towards natural health remedies continues, the public are becoming more interested in knowing how good bacteria can boost our immunity, digestive health, skin health and overall wellbeing.

And thanks to advances in technology, we’ve seen a huge increase in microbiome research over the last 10 years, leading to loads of new biome-friendly products and services – from tech startups offering gut-profiling to whole new diet philosophies.

So where will the changing culture of clean take us next? We still want to feel clean, look good and feel fresh, but in a way that lets us accept ourselves as we are instead of trying to mask our natural state.

That’s why we’re seeing a surge in the formulation of new products that nurture this way of being, through natural, non-fragranced, plant-based products. It’s likely we’ll see this continue to grow in the coming years, as consumers become more aware of the benefits of a healthy microbiome and product companies respond to the demand.

We now know that it’s not bacteria that are the problem – it’s when there are too many of the wrong kind in the wrong place that things start to get sketchy. We’re reconnecting with the benefits of bacteria and learning not to be so afraid of a little dirt.

Good bacteria for the win!

1Lecia Bushwak, Medical Daily, 2015. A brief history of bathing: the importance of hygiene, from Ancient Rome’s sophisticated showers to the modern day.

2Lecia Bushwak, Medical Daily, 2015. A brief history of bathing: the importance of hygiene, from Ancient Rome’s sophisticated showers to the modern day.

3C N Trueman, History Learning Site, 2015. History of Hygiene Timeline.

4Harvard University Library Open Collections Programme, 2018. Germ Theory.

5Katherine Ashenburg, 2013. New York Times. Why do Americans cherish cleanliness? Look to war and advertising

6Sarah Zhang, Gizmodo, 2015. How “clean” was sold to America using fake science.

7Sarah Zhang, Gizmodo, 2015. How “clean” was sold to America using fake science.

8Sarah Zhang, Gizmodo, 2015. How “clean” was sold to America using fake science.

9World Health Organization, 2018. Infection prevention and control.

10Gregor Reid, Science Direct, 2015. The growth potential for dairy probiotics.

11Robert Klara, AdWeek, 2017. How Dannon made yogurt mainstream in America after starting as a staple for immigrants.


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