What Does Clean Smell Like?

Have you ever noticed that certain scents can bring forth a rush of memories? Whenever I walk into an elementary school cafeteria, I am instantly transported back to my youth. I can almost feel the plastic tray in my hands as I try to make the difficult choice of what to eat that day. Certain colognes remind me of old flames, bringing about an intense emotional reaction. The same holds true for how most people expect “clean” to smell.

Most of us have been raised with bleach, pine, ammonia, and lemon oil as the scents that we associate with cleanliness. When we walk into a building and smell bleach and pine, we just know that the building is clean. That’s what our homes smelled like after our families cleaned, so surely that is what a clean building should smell like. But are those scents actually the smell of “clean”? Not really. What we are smelling that we think is “clean” is fumes from the chemical cleaners. Many of those fumes are toxic. But since our brains associate the scents with cleanliness, we are rarely affronted by them.

What does “clean” smell like, then? In a word: nothing. A truly clean environment should not have any odors. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of clean is:

a : free from dirt or pollution <changed to clean clothes><clean solar energy>

b : free from contamination or disease <a clean wound>

c : free or relatively free from radioactivity <a clean atomic explosion>

A truly clean environment should not have chemical odors. If you are cleaning with non-toxic and chemical-free products, you may end up smelling a little vinegar, or maybe a little bit of orange, lemon, or lavender. But that is about it. Many of the natural cleaning products on the market today are scented with essential oils such as lavender, orange, tea tree, pine, and lemon because the consumer expects their home to have those fragrances if it is really clean. Incidentally, it helps that those oils do have amazing antibacterial and sanitizing properties.