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HomeTechWhat’s behind the success of the ‘cleanfluencers’?

What’s behind the success of the ‘cleanfluencers’?

illustration of a mobile phone, wearing a maid uniform, cleaning house
© Jason Ford

It was while watching the third loop of a video of Jack Callaghan, a 28-year-old man from Newcastle, running a steamer back and forth over his bedsheets that I realised I agreed with one of the commenters: yes, this also brought me “peace and joy”. I found it surprisingly soothing, satisfying even, to watch this small task being carried out with such practised skill over and over. I moved on to a clip of him cleaning a microwave with half a lemon and a jug of water.

I thought I had bypassed the allure of the “cleanfluencer” — online gurus who provide cleaning tips on Instagram and TikTok — but clearly, I was being sucked in. As evidence, I can point to my new £2.99 Minky hob scraper, which I was influenced to buy by Kayleigh Taylor (2mn followers on TikTok, @cleanwith_kayleigh).

I am a latecomer, of course. In recent years the trend has exploded: videos tagged #cleantok have racked up 69.4bn views. On Instagram, more than 8.2mn posts are tagged #cleaning.

But what’s behind the surge in popularity? And, as we head into the traditional spring-cleaning season, might the shine already be starting to come off?

Sophie Hinchliffe — better known as “Mrs Hinch”, @mrshinchhome — is one of the most successful UK cleanfluencers. In 2017, she was a part-time hairdresser in Maldon, Essex, before setting up an Instagram account to share decorating and cleaning tips from her new house. Now she has 4.6mn followers on Instagram, whom she describes as her “Hinch army”, has published five books, posted countless paid endorsements — she reportedly earned £2.1mn in the year to April 2022 — and last month branched out into writing children’s fiction.

Cleanfluencer Mrs Hinch with cleaning products
Sophie Hinchliffe, aka Mrs Hinch (@mrshinchhome), one of the UK’s best-known cleanfluencers, reportedly earned £2.1mn in the year to April 2022 © CAMERA PRESS/Alex May

Jack Callaghan cleaning a kitchen surface
Jack Callaghan (@jack.designs), a cleanfluencer based in Newcastle

Ann Russell is one of the trend’s rising stars. The 59-year-old from the New Forest in Hampshire says she initially set up the account “just to stalk my teenage niece”; now she has 2.3mn followers who send in questions about cleaning (@annrussell03). She’s been affectionately dubbed the “TikTok Auntie” thanks to the comforting and reassuring nature of her videos — the most popular of which, she thinks, is “telling people what the compartments in a washing machine detergent drawer are for”. Her first book came out in September; her second is due out next month.

Adjacent to the cleanfluencers are the declutterers, who have been epitomised by the fastidiously well-organised Marie Kondo (until she revealed in January to have “kind of given up” on her own tidying since the birth of her third child). BBC One has just finished airing the second series of Sort Your Life Out, in which former reality TV star Stacey Solomon leads a good-natured team of experts who declutter and reorganise a family’s home over the course of a few days.

In the US, The Home Edit — founded by Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin — is a glitzier affair (@thehomeedit). The duo, who have a Netflix show, Get Organized with The Home Edit, have tidied Gwyneth Paltrow’s pantry and Reese Witherspoon’s walk-in closet. The latter’s media company Hello Sunshine, which produced their TV show, bought The Home Edit last year, describing how Shearer and Teplin “strive to make everyone’s life easier and more joyful”.

That word again. I asked Dr Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist and lecturer at University of the Arts London, why this content had such an affect on people — myself included. “Psychologists think of the ‘home’ as an extended self, which gives important psychological clues to our mental states, traits and processes,” he says. “So, when we tidy up our home, we quite literally tidy up ourselves, and signal our worth and desirability to both ourselves and to others.”

The videos are certainly educational — who knew, for example, that we should be soaking out pillows in a bath-full of bicarbonate of soda once a year (courtesy of @brunchwithbabs)? — but that does not entirely explain their appeal, says neurologist Dr Faye Begeti, herself the owner of the popular Instagram account @the_brain_doctor.

She thinks videos like Russell’s effectively offer our brains a break. “The amount of complex information we have to process just going about our daily lives means that the prefrontal cortex can get fatigued,” she says. “Rote activities that do not require such processing are able to give that brain a temporary rest: cleaning, scrolling on our phones and watching videos fall into this category and it is likely that by combining all three people are able to give the ‘thinking’ part of their brain a chance to recover.”

A spring clean for the mind, as well as the home, it seems.

The rise of the cleaning influencers might feel achingly modern but, in fact, it’s centuries old. In 1861, the 25-year-old Isabella Beeton — known as Mrs Beeton — became a sensation when she published her Book of Household Management, which included advising readers to store winter curtains in “paper or linen, with camphor to preserve them from the moths”.

photograph of Isabella Beeton, 1857
Precursor to the cleanfluencer: in 1861, Isabella Beeton, or Mrs Beeton, published her ‘Book of Household Management’ © Bridgeman Images

The title page of Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’
© Alamy

The seasonal urge to clean, especially in spring, is rooted even deeper in our collective cultural consciousness. “Across faiths and cultures, spring is a time to contemplate fresh starts, so mentally it is a good time to cleanse the home of the dust and dirt which has accumulated over the previous year,” says Danielle Patten, director of creative programmes and collections at Museum of the Home in London.

Ahead of the lunar New Year, it is Chinese tradition to perform da sao chu, the practice of cleaning to rid the house — and its occupants — of bad luck. Before Naw-Rúz, the first day of the Bahá’í calendar year (this year falling on Monday March 20) the Iranian tradition of spring cleaning, which translates loosely as “shaking the house”, uses cleanliness as a force to keep evil away.

Before the Jewish holiday Passover (this year April 5-13), all traces of chametz (or leavened food) must be removed from the home. “It’s a time to remember our liberation as slaves to the pharaoh in Egypt,” says Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner. “As the ancient Israelites escaped, they didn’t have time to wait for bread to rise, so to remember this, we don’t eat any leaven food and totally clean our houses of all ingredients that we are not allowed, even down to tiny crumbs.”

Even without the religious overtones, spring cleaning has been important in northern climates for centuries. “After a winter of coal or wood fires, houses needed to get rid of months’ worth of soot, coal-dust etc that had settled on everything,” says Judith Flanders, historian and author of Inside the Victorian Home. “Candles were also more heavily used in winter darkness, leaving wax or tallow residues behind.”

Brushes and cleaning utensils at Object Story, Stroud
Object Story, in Stroud, is part of a revival in chic traditional country stores

For those who tended big stately homes, the job was — and still is — enormous. “We are in the throes of our spring clean now, and I have spreadsheets upon spreadsheets detailing what we need to do in what room,” says Dorothy Rayner, who oversees the team of housekeeping and conservation assistants at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

Some cleaning methods have changed over the years — the vigorous application of Brasso, for example, on precious antiques (the conservation team have long since put a stop to this) or vinegar and newspaper on the windows (the windows are now fitted with a special UV film to help prevent light damage inside). Instead of just sweeping dirt into a dustpan, the cleaning team are decked out with Ghostbuster-style vacuum backpacks to suck up the dirt as they dust.

But other techniques and equipment have stayed the same. “Brushes, for example, are still our main equipment in our cleaning arsenal. We have so many different kinds for different jobs,” Rayner says. Hog hair is used on wooden panelling and sturdy furniture, for example, pony hair for slightly more delicate objects and goat hair, the softest of the three, is for use on gilded chandeliers or picture frames. “It’s quite sad that I spend so much time thinking about brush bristles,” she says, “but I really do.”

This may not be as unusual as she thinks. In the past decade, there has been a revival in chic-looking traditional country stores — from The Six Bells in Brooklyn to Labour and Wait in Shoreditch and Object Story in Stroud — that sell traditional-looking cleaning tools that range from ostrich feather dusters to galvanised steel dustpan brushes. Albeit they come with premium price tags: a handmade dustpan and brush made from foraged wood and pig hair by Geoffrey Fisher costs £55 at Toast.

The next chapter of the trend is the rise of #ecocleaning, a hashtag with more than 57.5mn views on TikTok with tips from creators about how to reduce plastic packaging and the use of chemicals such as bleach. Sarah Penny, content and research director at The Influencer Group, a marketing company, says the eco-cleaning segment is likely to be an area of growth for a cleanfluencer market that she thinks has largely peaked.

The demand for “eco” video content reflects a desire to buy green cleaning products — a market that is forecast to hit $298.9bn by the end of the year, according to a report by Research and Markets.

illustration of a mobile phone, wearing a maid uniform, cleaning house
© Jason Ford

New brands in this space include Wilton, which makes what it describes as natural-based laundry and washing up liquids, and byMATTER, which claims to be a carbon-negative cleaning brand that uses active probiotics to clean instead of chemicals. Laura Harnett, a former director at Selfridges, founded the plastic-free cleaning products brand Seep during lockdown when she became frustrated at the amount of plastic in sponges, cloths and bin liners.

“Two key trends to emerge from the global pandemic were environmentalism and hyper hygiene,” Harnett says. “Shoppers are increasingly aware of the chemicals they use in their homes as well as the amount of plastic.”

It helps that the new-gen eco cleaners are Insta-friendly, too, in sleek packaging that can be left out, boasted and posted about. “A bottle of eco-friendly washing-up liquid sitting by their sink says, ‘I care about our planet’ to every guest,” says Wilton founder Sam Whigham.

But both the #ecocleaning and #cleantok trends have come in for sharp criticism, including accusations of greenwashing by some brands and that some cleanfluencers are giving out poor, even dangerous, advice. Microbiologists and poison control experts have spoken out about the perils of mixing certain chemicals together — advised in some #cleantok videos to get a better clean — such as bleach and vinegar, which can create chlorine gas.

Last March, two academics published a paper in The Sociological Review arguing that cleanfluencers, the majority of them being young, married women, are repackaging housework in an aspirational way, promoting women’s willingness to participate in unpaid domestic labour.

“Cleaning in these videos is still presented as women’s work,” says Dr Emma Casey, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of York and co-author of the paper. “We rarely see men doing their share. Sometimes you get a sense that there is a partner in the background, but their input is turned into a joke,” she adds.

“We worry about the glamorisation and the sexist roles that it can often present to women, especially younger women who are watching these videos as tips on social media.” At the same time, prominent cleanfluencers and declutterers — perhaps because they are often women — have regularly been the victim of online abuse and trolling.

Marsden focuses on the positives, however. Many of these accounts, particularly the declutterers, “show us how we can take back control of a chaotic life [ . . . ] and offer how-to help and ‘hacks’ that offer a sense of daily achievement and mastery,” he says.

“In short,” he adds, “these cleaning videos may turn out to be therapeutically valuable. Think of them as free video therapy.”

Free — up to a point. Many cleanfluencer and declutterer accounts promote goods for which they take a sales commission on sites such as Amazon. And there are lots of different products to buy. John Lewis is selling The Home Edit’s range of plastic containers and shelf dividers; the type you can decant cereal into cost £20 each. Marie Kondo’s shop sells stackable bamboo drawer organisers for $34.99.

Plus, many run ads. Paid-for posts by cleanfluencers with large followings could generate up to $15,000 a time, according to the Influencer Marketing Hub. Rich pickings for a quick scrub.

Now, time to test out that hob scraper.

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