If you’re like most people, you might be too busy doing actual cleaning to really notice what your cleaning products smell like—which is too bad, since it turns out somebody has put an awful lot of thought into the scent you’re spraying everywhere as you frantically mop that puddle of toddler urine off the floor. The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating look at the olfactory design process that goes into our cleaning products, and it seems that things have gotten a little out of hand.
Back in the day, cleaning products used to sell on the strength of their chemical smells, but consumers are now demanding something closer to perfume in their toilet bowl cleaners and laundry detergents. Michael Papas, an executive perfumer at Givaudan SA, a company that creates scents for products, told the WSJ about the expectation for today’s cleaners: “At one time everyone wanted these clean, traditional scents, but now consumers want a whole experience when they're doing their laundry or washing their floors.” Yes, why endure the drudgery of scrubbing the splattered tomato sauce off the wall when you can instead pretend you are frolicking in the lemon groves of Amalfi?
To that end, companies—aided by advances in chemistry—have created increasingly complex “bouquets” that keep customers coming back for more. For instance, Mr. Clean offers up New Zealand Springs, a smell that promises “ferns, forests and glacier-carved waterfalls.” What does a waterfall even smell like? Water? It doesn’t matter, says Deborah Betz, of International Flavors & Fragrances: "They're fanciful. You want to evoke a feeling or emotion, like when you're out in a meadow. It doesn't have to smell like an actual meadow." That’s probably for the best since most meadows smell like some combination of animal waste and weeds.
No matter how frivolous all of this sounds, it’s serious business. There are plenty of fragrance companies happy to lead us down the fresh-scented path to chore glory. So how do they decide what will assault or appeal to our delicate nasal membranes next time we’re in the cleaning aisle? They follow trends in the perfume industry, and colors also inspire smells. (As for how colors smell, your guess is as good as mine.) But food trends seem to be the biggest idea generator—for instance the recent interest in eating pomegranates apparently led to a flurry of pomegranate-scented cleaning options.
Food scents can be complicated, however, because there’s a fine line between something smelling clean and fresh and sticky and disgusting. The scent of cooked food, for example, is a big no-no since nobody wants to develop an insatiable craving for apple pie while scrubbing the bathroom floor. Even raw, fruity smells can veer into the danger zone. Don Frey, the vice president of product development for Method, explains how something that smells too sugary can go wrong: "Anything that smells too juicy you associate with your fingers being sticky, which you don't want on your countertops." That probably explains why chocolate is another scent that never does well in cleaning products.
Of course, since cleaning is now an experience, it matters just as much what you call something as how it smells. There are certain things—like bananas and papayas—that smell delicious but don’t sound appealing. So while they’re often part of a fragrance, you’ll never find a shower cleaner called Banana Mist. Oddly, there are tons of lavender products that don’t actually smell like lavender, because it turns out people don’t like the way it really smells. So instead, companies create lavender “fantasies.” In case you’ve never had a lavender fantasy yourself, the WSJ says it’s usually a mixture of “fruit, floral, woody or vanilla notes.” Sounds delightfully vague but deeply calming.
As a cleaning product traditionalist who finds the simple scent of bleach oddly soothing, I worry that filling my house with all of these different competing scents would create an overwhelming sensory chaos. Fortunately, these cleaning companies think of everything, and they’ve started to develop fragrance lines that carry through all of their products. So now you can have a “Lavender Vanilla & Comfort” scent in all of your Procter & Gamble products, from Febreze to Swiffer sweepers. Though if you used all of them together it would probably smell like a lavender-vanilla fantasy bomb went off in your house.
And that’s the problem with having these complex scents all over the place: They’re aggressive and they often smell fake—probably because they ARE fake. Sometimes the cleanest smell is the smell of nothing. Maybe there’s a way for the fragrance companies to capture and bottle that? It could be called “The Reason You Don’t Smell the Dog Poop on the Carpet Is Because I Cleaned It Up.”