“Cleansing” Versus “Cleaning”

Today I went to wash my hands in the restroom and noticed one of those dispensers of overly scented hand soap. In big bold letters, the dispenser touted the soap as “Deep Cleansing” — which made my teeth grind a bit.

IMG_1880What’s with the trend to replace “clean” with “cleanse”? Virtually any product that approximates the effect of soap and water on human beings now uses “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” So, you see phrases like “deep cleansing,” or “gentle cleansing.” I’ve even seen an ad in which the actor says she likes “feeling cleansed” rather than “feeling clean.”

Why is this so? “Clean” is a perfectly good word that has been used for centuries. “Deep cleaning” certainly sounds more thorough than “deep cleansing.” So why isn’t it used?

I’m guessing that there are two reasons. First, no doubt advertisers and marketing managers have done studies that show that people will pay more if a product promises “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” Maybe it sounds more highbrow. Second, “cleansing” has a softer sense to it. “Cleansing” sounds like something that might happen during a gentle spring rain, whereas “cleaning” conjures notions of attacking a dirty item with a stiff wire brush and Mr. Clean. (Of course, “ethnic cleansing” runs counter to this linguistic theory.)

It’s all part of the reason why I like to buy the generic versions of household products. They tend not to be infused with ridiculous scents, they tend not to be packaged in ludicous designs, and if they’re hand soap or hand cleaner, they use those simple, time-honored words. It helps that they’re cheaper, too.

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