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Eau! A New Reason to Clean

Upscale cleaning products seek to please all the senses-- for a pretty penny, of course.


When it comes to who's the slob in the relationship, my husband and I go against gender stereotypes. He's the neat freak, I'm the incurable mess-maker for whom putting shoes in the closet is a monumental event. "I'm always picking up after you" is his weekly admonition, about which I cannot argue, although I do remind him of other virtues, such as an ability to yell out many correct "Jeopardy" answers.

Needless to say, he does most of the household cleaning. OK, practically all of it. On the rare occasion when he sticks a sponge in my hand and tells me to get to work, I am particular about the products I use--nothing that makes my eyes tear and my throat close. So it was with great hope that I approached some new, prettily packaged cleaning and home products from Caldrea, Mrs. Meyer's, Williams-Sonoma and the Good Home Co., everything from laundry powder and dish soap to countertop cleaner, laundry spray and furniture cream.

Each of the brands is designed to smell good, incorporating essential oils and other natural ingredients in biodegradable solutions. Sure, you can buy Palmolive in nice flowery and herbal scents now, and natural food stores have been carrying enviro-friendly cleaning products for years. But don't look on most grocery store shelves for this new generation of cleaners. These are targeted at high-end shoppers--the kind who indulge in aromatherapy products. Indeed, some of these cleaners smell good enough to be mistaken for bath and body products.

So far, two companies seem to dominate this niche market, one of them with three lines. Caldrea, based in Minneapolis and a year and a half old, produces the Mrs. Meyer's and Williams-Sonoma lines. The New York City-based Good Home Co. is 6 years old and also offers a line of moisturizers, bath oil and body scrubs.

All of these products come in packaging suited for farmhouses, Victorian parlors and World War II-era kitchens. Fragrances range from familiar to exotic: lavender, rosemary, lemon verbena, honeysuckle vine, beach house, citrus mint ylang ylang and white clover. They're available at places like Fred Segal, Nordstrom and Bristol Farms. And, yes, you will pay dearly for them: About $8 for 16 ounces of dish soap, $18.50 for 34 ounces of laundry fragrance, $10 for 16 ounces of all-purpose cleaner and $25 for 48 ounces of laundry powder.

Pricey, yes, but remember that consumers have been bingeing on fragrant candles for $20, room spray for $15 and potpourri for $30 for years without blinking an eye--all in an effort just to make their homes smell good.

This love affair with things that smell good is what's been fueling this new crop of cleaning products, says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Soap and Detergent Assn.: "We've been noticing the array of fragrances and pleasing scents in cleaning products in the last year and half," he said. "Fragrance definitely makes a difference to the consumer, as does packaging. Obviously, for brand loyalty the product has to work, but fragrance and packaging are a big draw."

Monica Nassif, who founded Caldrea, says there is indeed a market for her products. "I'd come home and think, 'Why does the kitchen smell like Murphy Oil and the bathroom like Lysol?' I'd be lighting Aveda candles to mask the smells."

Using her extensive background in marketing--she's worked for Target, Disney and 3M--Nassif did some research and found little in the way of upper-end, nasally pleasing cleaning products that also look good enough to be left out on the counter. She aimed the Mrs. Meyer's line at a younger, aspirational customer, and the Caldrea line to a slightly older, more affluent consumer, someone who might buy these products for the housekeeper to use.

While she wouldn't reveal the full ingredient list, Nassif did say the laundry powder contains an oxygen bleach plus a natural de-stainer and degreaser, with no dyes or fillers; the window cleaner has no ammonia but a plant-derived alcohol base; and the dish soap contains cleaning surfactants and a natural degreaser.

Christine Dimmick started the Good Home Co. in 1995 in her kitchen with the idea of "enhancing someone's home style and doing that mainly through scent." Like Nassif, she didn't like the fragrances she was finding in mass-produced products: "They're fake, and they don't remind you of any particular smell." Although she works with a manufacturer now, the goal is the same: "When I create my products, I'm really trying to bring up a memory, like honeysuckle vine. That reminds me of my grandmother's backyard."

Some of the Good Home Co. line comes packaged in glass containers instead of plastic because they're reusable and can become "part of the design of the home," according to Dimmick. Products include cedar closet spray, tub and tile cream cleanser, all-purpose spray and sheet spray, in fragrances such as lavender, dandelion and lemon chamomile.

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