The filth element: Why we're getting dirtier

We're buying fewer cleaning products and finally getting our hands dirty. Bring on the squalor, says Rhiannon Harries

For several weeks last year, I shared my kitchen toaster with a tiny mouse. I wasn't thrilled by the situation, but I put my faith in 150°C of germ-killing heat action, lay awake thinking about more pressing problems and, evidently, lived to tell the tale. Merely reading about such slatternly ways is probably enough to have the hygiene freaks among you reaching for your hand sanitiser. But before you judge, squeaky-cleaners, beware. For despite your precautions, your antiviral tissues and your twice-daily showers, it's you that may be the dying breed. As Mary Douglas wrote in that sociology classic Purity and Danger, dirt exists in the eye of the beholder.

Some alterations in our habits speak directly of this trend. We simply aren't spending as much on cleaning as before, which the giants of the consumer-product industry have witnessed to their chagrin, in the UK and throughout Western Europe and North America. Although Reckitt Benckiser, whose brands include Dettol and Clearasil, posted better than expected half-year profits in July, it was the surging demand for household and personal care in emerging markets that put a sheen on poor growth in developed economies such as ours.

On the flipside, products that effectively bridge the gap between less-than-daily head-to-toe bathing sessions are faring well. For instance, British sales of dry shampoo, long considered a fusty 1960s throwback, are buoyant. In the men's market, Unilever has just ploughed £5m into promoting its latest 48-hour deodorant to the Lynx range (as if reeking of it for 24 weren't enough).

Careering along the recessionary curve, it's tempting to diagnose our every move as a cultural symptom of economic illness. Since most of us now classify ourselves poorer in terms of both cash and time, it follows that investing in an arsenal of cleaning products, or even making it out in clean socks every other day, are simply beyond us. But Mintel's 2011 report on the household-cleaning products market in the US concluded that four years of decline suggest something more significant than a recession-driven downturn. And here in the UK, its research reveals that although 80 per cent of us say we value a clean home, almost half admit we're unable to do more than clean up as we go along and a third confess that cleaning is the last thing they feel like doing in their free time. We may like the idea of a spotless home, but when it comes to the crunch, it's not top of our priorities. What's more, in areas not immediately connected to the business of hygiene, we're actively choosing, indeed paying, to get a little dirty.

Head to many British parks at the weekend and you'll witness legions of "military fitness" devotees forgoing air-conditioned, sanitary gyms in order to perform their push-ups on damp grass. Although not as bold as barefoot-running, it takes faith in the pooper-scooping practices of one's fellow man to crawl, commando-style, across Clapham Common. As for festivals, where once upon a time three days of baby-wipe strip washes, knee-deep mud and portable "facilities" were once confined to an "alternative" scene, who wouldn't now cough up a couple of hundred quid to get grubby in a field for a weekend?

It's worth noting that since 2005, Persil, Britain's top laundry brand, has run with the slogan "Dirt is good", emphasising creativity in getting messy. The approach was hailed by some industry insiders as insanity for a sector that traditionally trades on a "whiter than white" promise, but by others as genius. The Unilever brand has stuck by its dirt-friendly core philosophy, suggesting it was ahead of the game in identifying the changing mood. Katherine Ashenburg, the author of Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing, agrees that an attitudinal shift is unfolding that runs deeper than our shrinking finances: "I think we're washing less for health reasons in particular – as supposedly we are washing away all kinds of good bacteria and making our skin dry out – as well as for environmental reasons."

The idea that our war on microbes might mean a Pyrrhic victory for our health dates back to the 1980s. The "hygiene hypothesis" raises the possibility that our increasingly sterile environment is related to rising rates of allergies, asthma and autoimmune disorders in the Western world. It remains a controversial piece of science, but one that advertisers have perhaps ignored to their peril. Revealingly, the growing backlash appears strongest among women, the historical prime targets of a cleanliness message that pressed antibacterials on nervous new mums, "intimate" sprays on paranoid single gals and a raft of cleansing and purifying beauty products on everyone.

Log on to Mumsnet and you'll find plenty of competitive slummy mummy-ness, where a floor you can eat your dinner off is no longer as much a badge of honour as letting your kids eat dinner off the floor, whatever its state. If it seems a victory for feminism, however, it's worth considering a different kind of pressure at work: the prissy 1950s housewife template might be out, but could it have been replaced by a more subtle form of self-presentation? As certain female starlets know only too well, dirt and sex go hand in hand. Edgier types such as Kate Moss have long harnessed rock'n'roll dishevelment to great effect, but even nation's sweetheart Cat Deeley, star of Pantene's latest haircare range no less, confesses that when she's not working she doesn't bother washing her hair.

Still, as ideals go, it's one that most of us can feel confident of achieving. And to those of you wedded to your chemical cleaners and "worn once" machine cycle, consider the following. In a New York Times article last year, "The Great Unwashed", Americans from all walks of life extolled the virtues of a pared-down hygiene regime – dubbed "European-style". Maybe we're right to give up trying so hard to prove otherwise.

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