What Is Clean?

By Robert Bernstein   |   August 22, 2023

Almost 10 years ago I was flying to a psychology conference for my work and I picked up a book called The Power of Habit while changing planes at LAX. I learned something in that book almost as valuable as anything I learned at the conference.

Author Charles Duhigg told the story of a Procter & Gamble (P&G) chemist who was a smoker. The chemist came home one day, and his wife asked if he had given up smoking, because he didn’t have the usual stink of smoke. It turned out he had been experimenting with a substance called hydroxypropyl beta cyclodextrin, or HPBCD.

He had accidentally discovered a substance that could remove almost any bad odor from almost anything. The “cyclo” refers to the donut shape of the molecule, which traps odor molecules in the donut hole.

P&G improved the formula and called it Febreze to suggest “fabric” and “breeze.” They introduced it in a few test markets.

They soon were led to a young park ranger in Phoenix. Her job was to trap animals that wandered into residential areas. Including lots of skunks, which often sprayed her. She was attractive and intelligent, but had trouble dating, due to the persistent skunk smell on everything in her home.

Febreze changed her life and she literally had tears of joy for the good people at P&G. Unfortunately, few other potential customers seemed to appreciate the wonders of Febreze. It was not selling, despite heroic marketing efforts. P&G hired top psychology researchers to find out why. And they soon got a clue.

The researchers visited another woman near Phoenix who had nine cats. She admitted she was kind of a “neat freak” and vacuumed every day. The researchers almost gagged when they entered her living room from the cat odor. But the woman was oblivious to the smell. Humans quickly become desensitized to smells that they are immersed in all the time.

With smokers, this problem is compounded by the fact that cigarette smoke causes overall damage to the olfactory system. Meaning that the people most in need of Febreze were the ones least likely to realize they needed it.

The Power of Habit book is about how people form good and bad habits and I plan to write more about that in the future. P&G was desperate to get people in the habit of using Febreze, but the obvious pitch of eliminating odors was not working.

The thesis of the book is that people form habits when they get a cue to do something and then they get a reward for doing that thing. In the case of Febreze, the cue was supposed to be noticing a bad smell. And the reward was supposed to be getting rid of the bad smell.

The park ranger was intelligent enough to get the cue from other people that she had a skunk smell problem. But most people are like the cat lady who are “cueless” and therefore “clueless.”

The P&G marketing people started all over with a new plan: Add perfume to the Febreze. And market it as a flourish to add at the end of tidying up. After you vacuum and make the bed, spray Febreze around. That “Febreze smell” will be the reward for having done the tidying up.

Fortunately for P&G this strategy worked. They were able to get people to form this new habit, which had nothing to do with actually eliminating odors.

But then there are people like me and the park ranger: People who just want things clean and odor free. What are we supposed to do?

I called customer service at P&G and asked if there is any way to get the original Febreze formula. The one that just takes away odors, but doesn’t add any odor of its own. The woman who answered was able to understand what I was getting at. But there was nothing she could do to help. Every version of Febreze has some fragrance added. It must have taken a lot of work for P&G chemists to find fragrances that weren’t neutralized by the wonderful odor removing HPBCD!

What are we to do? I am grateful that there is growing awareness of the harm done to many of us by the stench of added perfumes to most “cleaning” products and “deodorants.” But not fast enough. Can people understand that “clean” means “free of odors”? Including “free of perfumes”?  


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