• U.S.

The Smell of Clean

5 minute read
Coeli Carr

The dishwasher in her home in Pleasanton, Calif., works just fine, but Kimberly Wendt no longer uses it. For months, she has been rapturously washing her dishes by hand, enveloped by the rich scent of lavender, lemon verbena or geranium wafting from her sudsy sink. She spritzes her countertops and windows with fragranced products, while her laundry is perfumed with lavender.

Remember when ammonia and pine-sol were the telltale scents of cleanliness? Times have changed. A growing number of consumers are following their noses to a new and pricey category of housekeeping products that combine cleaning power with aromatherapy. Wendt, for instance, is partial to the Mrs. Meyer’s brand of dish liquids and countertop sprays. “The smell is amazing,” she gushes, “and it fills the house for a little while when you use it.” She’s also fond of Laundry Fragrance–added in the final rinse cycle–from the Good Home Co., which comes in lavender, vanilla and such mood-setting scents as Beach House and Paris Rain. These manufacturers also sell aromatic vacuum-cleaner beads and linen sprays. “They found a perfect niche. They really did,” Wendt declares.

Indeed, the mostly female entrepreneurs behind these trendy products seem to have discovered the sweet smell of success. Christine Dimmick was only 25 when she started the Good Home Co. in the kitchen of her New York City apartment in 1995. Today the company’s 25 products are sold in high-end hardware stores and specialty shops like Restoration Hardware and Gracious Home, and its annual sales exceed $4 million. Dimmick took her cues from the craze for aromatherapy candles and oils and environmental concerns about harsh chemical cleaning products. “I thought, ‘Why can’t a product work well, not be full of chemicals and smell great?'” she explains.

Monica Nassif, 47, was just a nose behind her in creating the Caldrea Co., based in Minneapolis, Minn. For years Nassif had shielded herself from the strong smell of common cleaning products by wrapping them in plastic bags as soon as she bought them and lighting fragrant candles in her home after cleaning. “Then,” she says, “it just dawned on me: Why can’t you have consistent fragrances running through an entire home-cleaning product line? Why can’t a consumer love to buy a cleaning product instead of settling for whatever is on the supermarket shelf?”

In late 1999 Nassif launched the Caldrea line of cleansers, with multilayered fragrances like lavender-pine and green tea–patchouli. A little over a year later, she added the Mrs. Meyer’s clean day brand, which features single-note aromas. (Mrs. Meyer is the real name of her thrifty, no-nonsense mother.) The products are sold mostly at specialty shops like the Container Store, high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods Market and other upscale locales. Nassif’s company also produces the Essential Oil Collection of cleaning products for the catalog retailer Williams-Sonoma. Overall company revenue has doubled annually for the past three years.

At $4.99 for a 16-oz. container of Mrs. Meyer’s dish soap and $18 for a 34oz. bottle of Good Home’s Laundry fragrance, those are clearly luxury items. (A 25-oz. bottle of Palmolive or Joy dishwashing liquid can be had for just $1.99.) What customers are paying for is not only costly ingredients like French lavender oil and fancy packaging but also some fairly sophisticated chemistry. Combining aromatic oils with cleaning agents is not so easy to do, explains Avery Gilbert, president of Synesthetics Inc., a firm based in Montclair, N.J., that provides consultations to the fragrance industry. “The soap base has chemical properties that tend to kind of tear apart the fragrance oils and make them go flat or not smell so good after a while,” he says. This may explain why mass-market products such as Procter & Gamble’s Joy, even in its new Green Tea essence variety, lack the olfactory punch of the pricier items.

Why is it so easy to lead consumers around by their noses? “Nothing changes your consciousness quicker than a smell,” says Mandy Aftelier, a natural perfumer and consultant based in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume. “Putting scent in your life, even over mundane tasks, is a good thing to do. It improves the quality of your life in small ways, and those small ways add up.” Studies have shown that inhaling pleasant natural scents can affect brain activity, alleviating stress and lifting mood.

That may explain the behavior some retailers are seeing in the soap-and-detergent aisle. “I don’t like to use the word addiction, but customers become fanatical about this stuff,” says Cindy Cooper, proprietor of 560 Main, the shop in Pleasanton where Kimberly Wendt replenishes her cleaning supplies. Customers “rant and rave,” says Charles Conn, a merchandiser at Whole Foods Market in downtown New York City. “I hear them say that ‘Mrs. Meyer’s made me like doing the dishes.'”

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