Smear campaign

Cars, floors, bottoms: there's scarcely a surface that can't be tackled with a flourish of detergent-drenched cloth. Has cleanliness got out of hand? Stephen Bayley examines our costly obsession with wipes
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The Independent Online

Something of a rarity: I was thinking of washing my car, the nearest most of us get to the purification rituals that refreshed older civilizations. Of course, it's a bit of a chore, but - on the other hand - like cleaning the fridge, it is one of very few tasks in contemporary life that it is possible to conceive, implement and satisfactorily complete within an hour or so. No sooner had the idea emerged than it died: I thought of the irksome battery of equipment required. Hose, buckets, detergents, sponges, duster: a confederacy of inconvenience productive of cold hands and wet feet. And a car with drying marks.

Something of a rarity: I was thinking of washing my car, the nearest most of us get to the purification rituals that refreshed older civilizations. Of course, it's a bit of a chore, but - on the other hand - like cleaning the fridge, it is one of very few tasks in contemporary life that it is possible to conceive, implement and satisfactorily complete within an hour or so. No sooner had the idea emerged than it died: I thought of the irksome battery of equipment required. Hose, buckets, detergents, sponges, duster: a confederacy of inconvenience productive of cold hands and wet feet. And a car with drying marks.

And then I read about a new Car Wash Wipe. Here was salvation in the form of a soft, moist wipe, dense with natural waxes and high performance silicones. No need for rinsing, drying or dusting off, the revolutionary (I am reading from their information here) Car Wash Wipe does away with the need for water. Sold in a carton of 10 sealable pouches for £3.75, I can now clean my car more often in the next 10 days than I have in the last 10 years. Such are the delusory excitements of the world of the wipe. Mere possession of the package and its promise seems to anticipate the completion of the desired task. I was so excited, I spilt my macchiato over my Louis-Quinze escritoire and had to reach for a fresh pack of Sainsbury's Lime All Purpose Wipes to clear-up the mess.

A paradigm of what we specialists in the anthropology of germ management know as the wipe type, this last product needs a little decoding. Your Sainsbury's Lime All Purpose Wipe is conceived as a devastating weapon in mankind's everyday transactions with disease and filth. The fresh citrus nose helpfully semanticises this campaign against E.Coli, Listeria and Salmonella. Even before you get the olfactory message, Sainsbury's helpfully provides visual clues of hygienic victories to come with a photo on the resealable flap of freshly halved lip-puckering limes resting on a virginally white chopping board.

Like all wipes, our Sainsbury's Lime All Purpose makes powerful appeals to our sub-conscious. The taste for hygiene we can come to later, but more immediately a part of its portfolio of potencies includes erotic and gustatory elements. Freudians will know that it can be no mere accident that the professional discourse over wipes regularly includes the terms "moist" and "impregnated", a sort of short-hand for sex and its consequences. Indeed, just feeling a fresh pouch of wipes is, for the imaginative consumer, an act with a quasi-sexual character. It is sensual and suggestive of pleasures to come. And the "peel and reseal" label, at first firmly attached, but then after persuasive ministrations coquettishly giving way to reveal an unambiguously mandorla-shaped orifice giving on to a foaming interior... this apes the comings and goings of concealment and display that characterise the act of love.

And if you are tired of sexual metaphors as a partial explanation of the wipe's allure, you could try oenological ones, as I did with the Original Dr Beckmann's Rescue Wipe and Shine for Lime Scale Removal. (This is helpfully - if disconcertingly - labelled "not for personal hygiene"). Like a potential sexual partner or a fine wine, Dr Beckmann's Original teases the consumer with the prospect of future fulfilment. Like CDs in their crystal cases, the sealed pack of wipes are intensely attractive because they appear to offer an accurately calibrated encapsulated perfection. Fifty seven minutes and twenty-two seconds precisely of late Beethoven for £13.99, or mirthlessly efficient lime-scale removal for rather less. We proceed and Dr Beckmann's flap gives way in germ management's metaphor of uncrossing legs: now all is possible, the consummating act of wiping can begin! And so we are back to wine. Just as you sniff the liquid in the glass, you can nose Dr Beckmann's Originals too. There are volatiles of anionic surfactants. Wait a minute and you then become aware of the important secondaries of malic acid. Then there is an aftertaste of deadly preservatives. It is like nasal engagement with a chemical lab.

Wipes are now very big business. One of the big suppliers, the Anglo-Dutch germ management specialist Reckitt-Benckiser, has been outperforming the FTSE100 because of its heavy representation in the competitive wipe battlefield. Naturally, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are active here too. The US conglomerate introduced Pampers wipes to the UK market in 1994 and since then something exceptionally curious has happened. Market research shows that while only 14 per cent of households have babies, 24 per cent use wipes that were originally intended for the little one's bottom. Clearly, in the past 10 years the wipe has assumed a life of its own.

Technically speaking, a wipe is a liaison of hydroentangulated cellulose and polyester fibres dampened with a cleansing fluid. It is, after the roll-on and the aerosol, merely a new consumerised delivery system for profitable industrial chemicals. But there is a profound psychological reality behind the popularity of the wipe.

Address yourself to this and you confront a dismaying catalogue of human frailty. One packet screams "40 per cent thicker to pick up more dust and hair" - a proposition which confronts our greed even as it humiliates us. One firm is selling a "Self-tan correction wipe", so one misjudged vanity can ameliorate another. Bizarrely, one Pampers product offers its juvenile customers a Jungle Fruit flavour "toilet wipe", represented on the packaging by a cheerful, indeterminate green creature using a Jungle Fruit flavoured "toilet wipe" exactly as intended. One thing they all have in common is an implicit notion that we are essentially soiled and flawed. Depressingly, they all offer the stale and grubby the transformational offer of "feeling cleaner and fresher". This is a proposition that has a completely unambiguous religious character, a sort of resurrection. On the other hand, one manufacturer will even sell you a wipe product designed to explode in a microwave - not a weapon, just a means of dealing with far-flung pasta sauce.

So in pursuit of an hygienic perfection which offers enhanced levels of consciousness and its parallel improved emotional state, our moist impregnated hydroentangulated cellulose and polyester delivery system takes its place in the history of civilization. The battle against filth is a microcosm of mankind's battle against darkness and evil. Lady Macbeth's compulsive hand-washing - "Out, damned spot!" - reveals the existence long before the modern consumer of the personality type who today would buy and use L'Oréal Age Perfect Smooth Cleansing Wipes (for Mature Skin). Had Lady Macbeth been able to deep cleanse and invigorate with her sachet of 25, who knows how differently the story might have ended. But it is not just our bodies the wipe promises to improve, with it we can also tackle the impact of grease, food and human bio-matter on the environment as a whole.

Here there is rich historical perspective. The prehistory of the wipe includes a 15th-century manual that warns the unwary socialite to look down before sitting to ensure the seat has not been fouled. This was apparently a day-to-day hazard at the time since the Braunschweig Court Regulations of 1589 enjoined readers not to use public staircases as privvies. And while excrement was all around, excrement's delivery systems were taboo. A 17th-century English author, Richard West, wrote in his Booke of Demeanours and the Allowance and Disallowance of Certaine Misdemeanours in Companie: "Let not thy privy members be layd open to be view'd." The fact that he had to advise this suggests it was an everyday possibility. The wipe makes us consider western civilization's preoccupation with the relationship between cleanliness and morals. This is a part of the self-loathing that is one of the less fortunate aspects of Christian culture. Bishop John Fisher, a Chancellor Cambridge University in the 16th century, unflatteringly described his fellow men as "satchells full of dunge". This fear and disgust with bodily functions and body parts continued until well into the modern age. A 19th-century manual for young women advises on the unseemly matter of washing the genitals : "Close your eyes until you have completed the operation."

But with civilization's march, circumstances have changed. Today the same young woman, possibly with multiple piercings, is encouraged to keep her eyes wide open and use flushable feminine wipes to maintain natural pH balance.

Our ancestors found not just dirt, but death, everywhere. The church of St-Étienne in Dijon was so rotten with the smell of decaying cadavers that they tried detonating saltpeter, fumigations, burning aromatics and watering the stone floors with vinegar. Only when they got really serious and used salt with a mixture of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids was an effective remedy found.

The 19th century too was full of terrible stories about collective asphyxia arising from "the family atmosphere" with its "gaseous detritus". Sanitary reformers told terrible tales about miasmic exhalations. Balzac picks up on this and uses kitchen and bathroom aromas. If the 19th century had had access to Mr Sheen Large Strong Wet Wipes for Floors we might never have had Père Goriot. Edward Chadwicks's Report... from the Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of 1842 is a landmark. He explains : "The various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth" were a cause of urban woes. It took civilization a very long time to realise that opening windows would help. And then the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industries with their Pampers, Mr Sheens and Dr Beckmann's came along and everything was going to be fine.

No wonder after this long history of grime and smell we have taken to the redemptive wipe with such a passion. But wipes appeal also to more contemporary needs than a reaction to the racial memory of endemic squalor and disease. Wipes appeal to that most perniciously influential of consumer groups, the time-poor. These are the people who want, even as it is the best place in most houses, to save time in the kitchen. For them was earlier invented the tea bag and instant coffee. For them a wipe offers immediate gratification, an immediate corrective to a lapse. Never mind that the great moralist, John Ruskin, would have advocated the moral benefits of a good old-fashioned scrub whether of worksurface or face. Ruskin wrote: "The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get from it, but what they become by it".

Wipe enthusiasts are careless of this fine distinction because the modern sensibility wants results, not ethics. In the Gulf, US Marines are, it is said, liable to go for a month without a conventional bath, but are saved by Pampers. The British Army has similar experience. Wonderfully, the brand manager of Pampers saw action as a captain in Bosnia. Soldiers unwilling to use solar showers lest they become vulnerable, naked, to chemical attack, would make themselves available to more domesticated forms of chemical attack and covertly rub-down beneath their fatigues with hydroentangulated moist toilet tissue. There can be no doubt in the military tactician's mind that fresher and cleaner soldiers make for a more effective fighting force.

Still, we should be proud of our insistent ability to purge ourselves and our kitchens and bathrooms (and our soldiers) so efficiently. In 1869 The Journal de la Société Vaudoise d'Utilité Publique said: " Une société sera d'autant plus moralisée qu'elle sera plus décrassée". (The morality of a society is in direct proportion to its cleanliness.) Which is to say removing dirt from the poor, by whatever means contemporary technology affords, makes them better people. Now the time poor volunteer for it.

Yet we have fewer moral certainties now than the 19th-century Swiss sanitary campaigners had. There is even some informal evidence that the battery of cleansing options which are on offer from the cornucopia of wipes available in today's stores can encourage damaging forms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And rather more concretely the British Society of Immunology has attacked the universal verity of what it calls the "hygiene hypothesis". Too much cleanliness, too much of Dr Beckmann, might reduce our immunity to allergies. There are saprophytic organisms which can be found, for instance, in mud that are actually good for you.

Cleanliness is one of our dearest delusions. The need to purge is universal, whether the soul or our computer keyboard is the target. The first has dark secrets, the second, research shows, often contain surprising, indeed, dismaying, amounts of moulted bio-matter. (These can be removed, experts advise, by a cotton bud working in combination with a Dettol anti-bacterial wipe).

We want to be cleaner and fresher, we want our machines to have anti-static qualities. We want to be holier than thou. Against the anarchic filth and imprecision of nature, a pop-up pack of aloe-perfumed wipes offers no less than instant absolution. Is it sinful to want to be cleansed? The work ethic pioneer Elbert Hubbard said: "We are not punished for our sins, but by them."

But then you look at the grotesque abundance of wipes and the mass of delusions they entail and project and the thoughtful will reflect that every new possession adds to our weariness, especially if it is an FMCG. Meanwhile, the time poor are on a mission and they say: "Get thee behind me Satan... and wipe."