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Why Do We Clean? Looking Back to the Future

Why do we do clean? What sparked its evolution? If we take the time to think about this subject maybe we can come up with better ways of cleaning, indeed, better ways of protecting ourselves and our families. In this post, I’ll provide my own analysis of why we clean and hopefully spark a conversation bucking current practices and moving us toward a new era of cleaning.

Paleo Clean(se)

Long before paleo diets became a lifestyle choice, people dwelled in caves. They hunted animals for meat. They gathered other edible sources of nutrition. More than likely, at first anyway, they consumed their prey and what they gathered on the spot rather than return back to the cave with it. It may not have been long; however, that the necessity to take their food togo was born and back to the cave they went with the day’s meal in tow.

Caves didn’t come with laminate or tile flooring. Instead rocks and dirt were responsible for the ambience. So cleaning back then was not for the purposes of removing dirt. I’m sure our ancestors found that if they left their old bones and food scraps in the cave, they would invite unwanted predators. Rather than place their lives at risk, after finishing a meal, cleaning consisted of throwing out the unused and unwanted food scraps from the cave. The very crux of modern-day cleaning evolved from there as a means to rid our environment from threats to our survival as an animal species. Simply: cleaning is a human trait we need for survival.

Vanity Fair

Some time ago, cleaning became engrained in our instinct and a periodic ritual ensued. Around that same time, families became clans, clans became tribes, tribes became villages, and societal structures shifted from more utilitarian to aristocratic. People sought the advantages of cleaning and “elites” in societies began to exploit their perceived power. Cleaning didn’t necessarily shift from a mode of survival to a status symbol; the survival aspect will always remain. Rather, the reason why folks clean now included a new perception of status, wealth and power.

As we know today, keeping a clean home requires tons of time, which typically requires more than one or two people keeping it clean. Back then, though–we’re talking since the dawn of civilization as we know it–if the family wasn’t big enough, help was hired or slaves and indentured servants performed housekeeping duties amongst other things. The cleaner the home, the wealthier the family. One could argue this reason of status stills hold true, minus the slaves in most cases (I’ll save the dehumanizing of service workers for a later post).

Matter of Pride

For those who couldn’t afford the help or were slaves themselves, keeping a clean home and having good hygiene carried an additional component to the reason: self-esteem. I say “added,” because the perception of wealth and power still exists; however, if not possessed by an individual, the fallback is usually pride, self-esteem and self-respect. This reason of self-respect also holds true today. No matter one’s station in life, cleanliness can always be achieved and some form of self-respect maintained.

Extremist Thought

The discovery of bacteria and pathogens not only reconstituted the instinctual, survival reason of why we clean, but took it to the extreme. The idea of “kill everything we can’t see” made sense at the time. People died for no apparent reason. So if there was something we couldn’t see that was killing us, by any means…get rid of it. Our reasons for cleaning now included a fear factor.

Unfortunately, some people saw a profit to be made and a plethora of concoctions were created and sold in the marketplace. An entire multi-billion-dollar industry that we see today was born from the extreme and overuse of antiseptics. Antiseptics, disinfectants, sanitizers and so on were used in every way imaginable and unimaginable (see Lysol used as birth control and douche).

What’s Worse?

The perversion of biological science for profit has proven dangerous. Marketers haunt people’s fears, promise convenience, and hide the negative side effects of the chemicals used in the very products they promote–all while exacerbating the issue. The birth of superbugs has risen more in the last decade as our societies use of anti-life chemicals becomes more ubiquitous. The time, money, and effort spent in fighting respiratory issues caused by chemicals, for instance, shows up in extra doctor visits, inhalers, and missed opportunities at work or in the classroom. Is a $3.99 bottle of bleach for the sake of white socks worth $156 in copays, medication, missed wages, with no real results to show for it? So why, then, do we keep using chemicals to clean? Fear and fear itself.

Snake Oil

We’ve been brainwashed to think certain chemicals clean and sanitize better than others. That a specific smell means clean. That all microbes are bad. Folks, the snake oil is still being sold like it’s 1895. Let’s take Original Pine-Sol® Multi-Surface Cleaner, made by Clorox. They market it stating it: “powerfully cleans, deodorizes and has a clean, fresh scent, disinfects and kills 99.9% of germs, longer-lasting scent, even stronger on bathroom soils (soap scum, rust and hard water).” Looking at the ingredients on the Clorox website, not only do they list what’s in there, but they even provide their own definition of each ingredient–albeit pretty rosey and vague. The further down the list, the nastier the ingredients get. For instance, according to the site, Pine-Sol contains a preservative known as Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT). Clorox says CMIT is “a class of ingredients used to help prevent products from deteriorating over time, maximizing their shelf-life, and ensuring efficacy and safety.” Meanwhile Safecosmetics.org says CMIT additives “may be hard to pronounce, but they can be even harder on the body. These common preservatives are found in many liquid personal care products, and have been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity.” Once again, the snake oil does more harm than good.

Silver Lining

With the rise of superbugs and science pointing to antibiotics as ineffective in managing microbes to safe levels, people’s minds are shifting back to the original reason of why we clean: survival. We are seeing that chemical cleaners, even some claiming to be antibacterial, are actually harming us. Our cleaning practices are contributing to poor air quality and respiratory issues, cognitive issues, even reproduction complications. Chemical cleaning practices are no longer on our side; instead, they are quickly becoming outlawed. The FDA banned soaps with antibacterial ingredients because they are not safe for long-term daily use and less effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of certain infections. For the FDA to take a stance like that, there must be something really bad about our prior and current practices which are only symptoms of our fear.

Fortunately, there are more studies and research being done on probiotics and other non-toxic means that get the job done and protect us in the process.

The Future of Clean Is In The Why!!!!

How do we change our practices when we’ve been doing them for so long?

First, let’s highlight our reasons for cleaning. This will give us a baseline to refer to when seeking answers on our quest for change:

  • survival – rid our environment of dangerous threats, including those we can’t see
  • status, wealth and power
  • self-respect – pride
  • fear – we’ve been duped for a long time by folks selling snake oil

Use Common Sense. Since we now have the knowledge we didn’t have years ago, we need to apply it and use common sense. We know chemical cleaners aren’t really working and they’re harming us physically. Listen to your body the next time you step into a room recently cleaned with chemicals or sprayed with a deodorizer. Your nostrils and sinuses will likely plug up, your breathing will become shallow, your eyes might water. That’s your body telling you to, “Get out! It’s not safe!”

To avoid chemicals in cleaning, use natural cleaners. If you can’t find a probiotic cleaner, use vinegar or some of the non-toxic soaps available. They work well, are effective, and usually less expensive in the longer run.

If you find your place of business or the company you contracted using chemicals, simply require they switch or look for a company who does use alternative methods. Your health is not worth taking the chance.

Vote With Your Wallet. Question the studies you read, hear and see. Believe in your own experience. Chemical companies will tell you anything for you to buy their products. Challenge their claims and do not buy their products until they can prove they are effective and safe to use. For every dollar you spend on nontoxic products, you are signaling to the market your demand for such products.

Education Is Key. A quick google search can lead you in all sorts of directions, but one word from a trusted friend and a person’s mind opens a little more to new information. The more educated people are on using harsh chemicals to clean, the less use of them in our homes and other environments there will be. Common sense will prevail at some point.

Change Regulations. Many people, especially in organizations, would have you believe their policies and procedures cannot change. For instance, in most preschools, a spray bottle of bleach and water is “required” to be used to wipe down surfaces. Why? We know there are better, less harmful alternatives out there. Why harm our kids in trying to stick with an archaic regulation that doesn’t work?

For example, for bleach to be effective, a surface needs to be cleaned and dried first. Then between five and ten minutes of dwell time is required before the solution should be wiped up. I highly doubt cleaning staff knows this–and if they do, I doubt they’re doing it. Nevermind the fact that bleach loses its “power” just 24-hours after mixing with water.

Stay Vigilant

The reasons we clean may have been lost in translation over the last few millennia; with a few tweets, posts, phone calls or dollar votes you can change the future and set a trend that cocoons into a lasting legacy for mankind to follow for the next few generations. Do what’s right for your family. Teach your children well. The rest will be history.