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The Psychology of Cleanliness: How Clean is Clean Enough?


For all our best efforts to clean everything immaculately (and we, as cleaners, really do try), even the most controlled environments in the world are contaminated in some way.

In office cleaning, you think about germs around toilets, mud in carpets, dust in the air… But even if you could remove all of this, you’d still find contaminants. While you’d expect mud-free and dustless to be as clean as it gets, it’s not. It just… feels clean.

This is interesting, because there’s a clear psychological sense of cleanliness, with no scientific definition – and on the flipside, a very scientific one of absolute sterility.

Think about the feeling you get when you’ve had a lovely hot bath, or scrubbed down in the shower. You’re clean, right?

And when you get into bed – tucked into freshly laundered, crisp bedding that smells like flowers from the mountains… That’s just about the cleanest feeling in the world!

But this is just a state of mind. You feel clean. In reality, you’re covered in the remnants of the minerals in your water supply, the perfumes in your soaps, the greases and oils in your body lotion… and countless bacteria.

Even the very air you breathe is full of dust, odours and unknown particles. Even if you were “clean” after a bath, you’re covered in stuff again as soon as you leave it.

Now, we’re not suggesting you give up bathing or washing your hands, or wiping down your kitchen, or anything like that – just because it’s a hopeless effort! Basic hygiene still counts, folks; you can still get unwell from nasty bacterial or viral contamination.

We’re just trying to explain that there are forces outside of our control when it comes to cleanliness.

And one man knew this better than anyone else.

In the 1940s, a man by the name of Clare Cameron Patterson made a shocking discovery of just how contaminated our environment was. His tireless work to remove one particular contaminant has given everyone cleaner air, safer food – and a true age for planet Earth.

That’s an odd sounding combination, until you learn how the age of the Earth is measured.

And it all starts with absolute cleanliness.

Unseen, unclean

Patterson’s pursuit of cleanliness began in the 1940s, when he was tasked with finding the most accurate age of the Earth possible, using a method called U-Pb dating (or uranium-lead dating).

It’s an intricate method, but it basically boils down to this: when the planet was born, some rocks were formed containing the metal uranium – and uranium is radioactive.

It breaks down over time into lead. So, by measuring how much of this lead is in the rock, and knowing how long uranium takes to break down, you can accurately age the Earth.

But no matter what Patterson and his team did, they always detected an overabundance of lead – more than was possible from their samples alone.

Where was all this excess lead coming from?

Patterson began losing his cool searching for the answer. His psychological sense of clean had shifted radically; scrubbing, purging, always searching for the source of lead.

And then, he found the answer. Floating in the air, invisible – and deadly.

It was petrol. Old fashioned leaded petrol.

Patterson had discovered the biggest public health concern to date; atmospheric lead poisoning from fuels was destroying the lungs and brains of children and adults, the world over. In combination with the lead in food, from being used in canning, the levels of lead found in human blood had skyrocketed to never before seen heights.

Patterson lobbied against the oil companies for years, gave his evidence tirelessly – and eventually, he won. Lead was phased out of fuels entirely by 1986, and it was in decline long before. All thanks to him.

It came at a huge personal cost. His career was over. He dedicated his life to public safety, and lost sight of his scientific ambitions. He picked a fight with a powerful enemy, but because he won it, not even supposedly neutral organisations would take him on afterwards.

But he did eventually get an age for the Earth.

It’s 4.54 billion years old, give or take a few million years…

Making this measurement required the cleanest room ever devised – the Ultraclean Chamber. Not a hint of dust, dirt, mud, bacteria – not even atmospheric lead.

Developing the means to measure the age of the Earth took years, and the Ultraclean Chamber is thought to be the first ever “cleanroom”, now commonplace in medicine, tech and scientific research.

These are the most objectively clean places in the world today.

So, what’s all of this got to do with the psychology of cleanliness at work?

“Clean” is a state of mind

Patterson’s mission was impossible without the cleanest environment ever created.

While the unseen contaminants rarely bother us, a feeling of being unclean is unbearable to many. You can be otherwise dirty and sweaty – but a splash of water and a change of clothes can make you feel brand new.

Clean enough, for us non-scientists, is just that; it’s enough.

And the same is true of office cleaning. Even the smallest of gestures, like running a hoover around, can make the office look, smell and feel clean. Dusting your desk takes away that ‘ick’ you feel when you sit down to work. And this decreases the cognitive load we all feel at work, buzzing in the background of our minds.

That frees up headspace, and allows teams to function at a higher level.

People simply feel happier for feeling cleaner.

Yes, offices get dirty. People create mess and stains, crumbs and smears – on an hourly basis, sometimes. But the feeling of being clean is a positivity booster, a productivity booster, and an all-round benefit to people and businesses.

And you don’t need a scientifically sterile cleanroom to get that.

Just a good office cleaner.

Office Cleaning – for Happier Days at Work

Get professional office cleaning in Cardiff – from The Abbey Cleaning Service. Call 029 2067 9323 today, to find out how we’ll help you keep your office clean, happy and productive all year.

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