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Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness: Why Being Clean Feels So Good

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, Cotton Magnolia inspires an investigation into religion, morality, illness, and the ethical impact of cleanliness.

Imagine yourself stretched out on a freshly made bed, the clean cotton sheets still warm from the sunshine in which they had basked all day on the clothesline.

You breathe in deeply; crisp notes of citrus and a delicate floral scent soften your mood. Your mind lingers on the aroma, noticing its complexity; you detect a little spice, a little wax, and some darker undertones of wood and leather. Even if you’d had a rough day, a smile is bound to spread across your face as you lounge in the luxury of it all.

Who doesn’t love the smell of clean laundry? Admit it: We’ve all buried our face in a mound of clothes fresh from the washing machine just to take in the unbeatable fragrance. In fact, clean laundry smells are the most popular candle scents among consumers.

Finley, the canine of the Keap Team, often likes to go and ruffle freshly cleaned sheets

Curling up in clean sheets or patting down with a fresh towel after a shower instantly improves your day. Being clean just feels good. It also makes us do good: the concept of cleanliness is integral to our understanding of morality and ethical behavior.

“Smokestacks and Clotheslines” by Walker Evans; Source: Met Museum

Clean Skin, Cleaner Conscience

As the story goes, the average medieval citizen absolutely stank. Lacking access to clean water and sophisticated plumbing, the peasants tended their fields caked in grime. The nobles didn’t have it much better, bathing perhaps a couple times a year at most.

A knight bathing; Source: The Vintage News

Except: this account is more folktale than fact. Humans have long held hygiene dear, and even in the Dark Ages people prided themselves on keeping clean. Etiquette guides of the era insisted on daily tooth brushing, face scrubbing, and hand washing. Numerous medieval artworks depict serfs and aristocrats alike enjoying the public baths that were common across Europe at the time. In some quarters, wealthy citizens would walk naked through town to reach the baths — after all, no one could steal their finery if they weren’t wearing any of it. 1

That even the poor peasants made time for bathing may have something to do with the strong connection between cleanliness and god, which is more than a simple aphorism. Every major world religion incorporates ritual bathing practices meant to purify and bless adherents, from the Christian baptism to the Jewish mikveh to the Islamic ghusl. Up until the 17th century, most public baths in Japan were provided by Buddhist temples, which promoted the practice as both a form of absolution and a way to bring luck.2 Every January, millions of people participate in a mass ritual bath in the Ganges river as part of the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela.3

People bathing in the Ganges during Kumbh Mela; Source: Indian Express

Cleanliness is also the key to unlocking secular understandings of morality, the code of conduct distinguishing good behavior from bad behavior. The concept of cleanliness “infuses the concept of morality itself and may even be fundamental to moral meaning,” writes psychologist Gary Sherman.4

“Cleanliness is not a simple metaphor, but a key part of what it means to be moral at all.”

According to this ethical framework, morality is more than a thought experiment — it is a lived reality with an embodied, physical dimension. Cleanliness is not a simple metaphor, but a key part of what it means to be moral at all. As proof of this, Sherman describes research from the University of Plymouth in which subjects were asked to read and respond to stories of morally dubious situations. Some participants washed their hands before reading the stories, while others did not. The study found those subjects who washed their hands judged the moral stories less harshly than those who did not. In other words: participants who felt clean physically were more likely to feel clean morally.5

Other research has found similar results when participants experience clean scents. In one study, Brigham Young University professor Katie Liljenquist had participants engage in a series of tasks. Some performed these tasks in an unscented room, while others performed these tasks in a room freshly sprayed with a citrus-scented cleaning product. The subjects in the citrus-scented room acted more charitably and fairly than those in the unscented room. When asked to divide $12 between themselves and an anonymous partner, subjects in the unscented room gave their partners only $2.81 on average, while subjects in the scented room gave their partners $5.33. Subjects in the scented room also expressed more interest in volunteering for charity efforts and donating to charitable organizations. 6

“Beauties on laundry day,” by Torii Kiyonaga; Source:

This research has implications for how we live our lives. Want to behave more ethically every day? Maybe all you need to do is wear the right perfume or light the right candle before you leave the house (convenient for us!). Liljenquist also suggests stores could use these findings to fend off shoplifters. Forget cameras and security guards: just keep the place smelling clean.

Liljenquist’s advice isn’t as wacky as it might sound. Businesses already use scent to influence customers via a practice called “scent marketing,” in which specific aromas are piped into an environment in order to promote certain behaviors. For example, Nike found it could increase intent to purchase by as much as 80 percent simply by pumping the right fragrances into its stores. Meanwhile, the UK-based toy store Hamleys once used a piña colada scent to keep parents "lingering longer," and therefore more likely to give into their kids’ demands. 7

A Little Dirt Never Hurt Anyone

The clean/dirty dichotomy may offer us a guide to moral behavior, but this framework can have unintended consequences when we apply it too rigorously to the world around us. We tend to look down on people with what we perceive as poor hygiene habits, seeing them as lazy, less competent, or even less trustworthy. In one survey, 68 percent of business owners said personal hygiene was a make-or-break factor in their employment decisions.8

While it may not be pleasant to share space with someone whose body odor is, shall we say, extra perceptible, it’s not entirely accurate to assume that strong B.O. signals weak ethics, either. Such a presupposition can, paradoxically enough, cause us to treat others quite immorally. We may understand morality through a discourse of “cleanliness,” but physical cleanliness does not guarantee moral behavior, nor does physical uncleanliness preclude it.

“Another situation in which our contemporary disconnect from nature puts us at risk instead of making us safer.”

More concretely, our cultural obsession with cleanliness may be making us sicker. It’s called the “hygiene hypothesis,” and the idea is simple: early exposure to allergens and germs helps people build immunity. Now that we all regularly wipe our homes down with products that kill 99.9 percent of germs, many children are growing up without the chance to develop those immunities. As a result, asthma and allergy rates are climbing.9

This seems to be another situation in which our contemporary disconnect from nature puts us at risk instead of making us safer. In response to climate change and sustainability crises, many scientists, business leaders, and other authorities have begun advocating for “biomimicry,” an approach to design and innovation based on the principles of the natural world. For example, architect Mick Pearce imitated termite mounds to create the self-cooling Eastgate Centre building in Zimbabwe.10

Optimal arrangement of solar array mirrors based on Fibonacci spirals; Source:

Perhaps our lives could use a little more biomimicry with respect to how we live alongside dirt? The rise of “adventure playgrounds” — outdoor play areas in which children are encouraged to get a little grimy — suggests many parents are already striving for just that.

Children at an adventure playground in Ithaca, NY; Source: Babble

For Aristotle, morality existed within the “golden mean” — the middle ground between two extremes.11 In his view, the most ethical choice was the one that avoided both excess and deficiency. In light of the hygiene hypothesis, it seems this principle may apply not only to moral cleanliness, but also to physical cleanliness.

Maybe the ultimate lesson here is to stop sweating the small stuff, at least hygienically. Dirt is inevitable — but hey, that gives you another chance to wash those sheets and enjoy the clean laundry smell all over again.

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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