Home sweet-smelling home,

Sick of ammonia? Bored with bleach? New household cleaners are wafting in with aromas of a higher class - and price.

Focus On Cleaning

March 17, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

What if your kitchen counters could smell like the herbs you cook with, and your sheets like fresh-cut grass? What if your household products were so decorative you wouldn't want to put them under the sink?

For homemakers who like to pamper themselves with small touches of luxury and are willing to pay for them, manufacturers have come out with high-end lines that look as good as they clean and smell even better.

They have names like Citrus Mint Ylang Ylang Dish Soap Liquid and Basil-Verbena Window Wash with Essential Oils. They glisten in their clear bottles in shades of celadon and pale lavender. Their labels are small works of art.

Naturally you pay for the pleasure of making kitchen drudgery a spa experience. Williams-Sonoma's herb-scented countertop cleaner, for instance, costs $9.50, and a bottle of the Good Home Co.'s Pure Grass laundry fragrance is $18.

"It's one of the most noticeable trends in our industry," says Brian Sansoni of the Washington-based Soap and Detergent Association. "Boutique offerings. And a lot of it has to do with the appeal of fragrance. For a certain part of the market, the nose leads."

Americans' fascination with fragrance hasn't gone unnoticed by the mass market producers of household cleaners, of course. A walk down the supermarket aisle is proof of that. But the manufacturers of these high-end household products are selling not just fragrance but also aromatherapy, not to mention purity and, in some cases, nostalgia -- all in very stylish packaging.

The products clean pretty well, too; but don't look for them to contain ammonia, bleach or strong antibacterial agents. Besides the fact that these ingredients aren't eco-friendly, they would interfere with the so-called "essential oils" that are the basis of spa scents.

One company, Caldrea, is the Procter & Gamble of this niche market. Based in Minneapolis, it not only has products under its own name but also produces the Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day line of aromatherapeutic household cleaners, Verbena Fields kitchen dish soap for Crate & Barrel, and Williams-Sonoma's cleaning products. (The upscale kitchen store wanted its own line to smell like kitchen herbs and lemon so there would be no conflict with cooking aromas.)

Monica Nassif, founder of Caldrea, says she detested the products that were available before she started her company. She found herself lighting scented candles to mask their odor.

"I realized there were no upscale lines. Whether you lived in a trailer or a mansion, you had to use the same products."

Nassif knew that with the cocooning trend, American women were starting to spend more money on home furnishings than fashion. Yet there was no equivalent of the Aveda line of bath and body products for the home -- cleaners that, while not organic, used plant-derived ingredients and essential oils and seemed more pure than other products.

So, for instance, the Crate & Barrel dish soap contains the essential oils of lemon, bergamot and peppermint with soap bark (a natural degreasing herb, according to the label). The soap is biodegradable and not tested on animals. It costs $9 for 16 fluid ounces.

Nassif also hated the fact that cleaning supplies weren't scent-coordinated. Like the manufacturers of beauty products, Caldrea -- and the other major producer of boutique offerings, the Good Home Co. -- offers cleaners that have the same fragrance throughout. You can now coordinate your ironing water, floor cleaner, window wash and countertop spray in scents like lemon-mint or lavender. Yes, they are expensive, but think of the money you'll save on aromatherapy candles and potpourri.

Nassif says her company has tried to make these products as natural as possible, "But they have to work. If they didn't work, we never would sell you a second bottle."

Arlene Steen of Owings Mills bought her first bottle of Basil-Verbena cleaner at Williams-Sonoma because she likes to try some of the store's more unusual things. "I'd never had anything basil-scented before," she says.

She gives the products a thumbs up, particularly because her son can't stand the antiseptic smell of ordinary cleaning products.

"Now I can wipe off the countertop while the family is eating," she says.

Does the cost bother her?

"A little bit. I'd be lying if I said it didn't."

Six years ago the New York-based Good Home Co. specialized in bath and body products, says spokesman Arni Halling. Now home fragrance has become the core of its business. Good Home's approach is a little different from Caldrea's. The company is selling nostalgia, inspired by founder Christine Dimmick's memories of her grandparents' farm: the smell of fresh-cut grass, lavender, dandelions, sweetpeas and honeysuckle vine (greener than honeysuckle), and a seasonal winter scent of orange-cinnamon. The company also offers its laundry detergents and spray cleaners in Beach House, which is pleasant but hard to describe, and contains a secret ingredient that Halling won't divulge.

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