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Consumer Products


Cleaning changed during the pandemic, and it may not change back

The cleaning product industry expects intense cleaning to be a long-term habit

by Craig Bettenhausen
January 24, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 3

A person mopping is in the foreground in a mall or department store, while other people shop in the background.
Credit: Shutterstock
No longer a night-shift task, cleaning is something businesses want people to see them doing.

It would be a stretch to say the COVID-19 pandemic has made us stronger, but it has certainly made us cleaner. The cleaning product industry has seen unprecedented demand for its wares and services over the past 2 years. According to industry insiders, most of the changes that COVID-19 has wrought on the market will be with us for many years.

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That’s not exactly bad news for the chemical firms making the ingredients that go into cleaning products.

For example, at Stepan, a major player in surfactants and quaternary ammonium disinfectants, North American surfactant sales were up 8% in 2020 over the previous year. As Stepan explains in a 2020 financial report: “The sales volume growth was primarily due to higher demand for products sold into the consumer product end markets, driven by increased demand for cleaning, disinfection and personal wash products as a result of COVID-19.”

Melissa Hockstad, CEO of the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), an industry group, describes 2020 and 2021 as a “once-in-a-century type of market.” The ACI’s members include consumer goods makers like Procter & Gamble, ingredient manufacturers such as Dow, and chemical distributors. Although Hockstad doesn’t expect cleaning product sales to stay sky high, she expects that individuals and organizations will enshrine most of their current cleaning intensity as normal practice going forward.

“It’s not a fad where we’re expecting some significant drop-off as we look to this year and beyond,” Hockstad says. “I think the behaviors that really became part of the norm during the pandemic we’ll see continuing as we look ahead.”

The behavior trends that ingredient makers have observed are the same ones that the average consumer experienced. “Consumers significantly increased their standard for cleaning during the pandemic,” says Amita Gupta, a vice president at BASF in charge of home, industrial, and institutional cleaning in North America. “They started cleaning more often and wanted products with strong claims on performance, especially disinfection.”

What is interesting is we hate to change, right? But when we change something, it’s very difficult to come back.
Fabio Caravieri, head of global marketing for industrial and consumer specialties, Clariant

The chemical maker Evonik Industries saw an increase in sales to the cleaning product industry in 2021 even compared with 2020, says Derek Dagostino, who leads marketing of cleaning ingredients for the company.

But one nuance in the data is that the rush for bleach and disinfectant wipes has subsided.

Two years in

Though some trends have faded, industry insiders say most COVID-19-related changes to the cleaning ingredient market are likely to stick around.

Rising impact in 2022

Facilities cleaning and disinfection

Consumer pressure is spurring thorough and highly visible cleaning practices in public spaces.

Concentrated formulas

More potency in smaller volumes lowers packaging and shipping costs and improves sustainability.

Ingredient transparency

Educated customers are reading labels.

Multifunctional products

Products that simplify cleaning protocols without loss of efficacy are popular.

Mixed impact in 2022

Diverse disinfectant chemistries

Educated consumers are more accepting of new ingredients, but older ingredients face concerns over their harshness and environmental impact.

Falling impact in 2022

Reduced kill times

As kill times have gone from 10 min to 30 s, the law of diminishing returns is taking over.

Active and catalytic-clean surfaces

The approach doesn’t remove dirt, which could hide pathogens beyond the reach of surface chemistry.

Daily home disinfection

Increased cleaning is likely permanent, but disinfection is down from its pandemic peak.

Commercial laundry disinfecting presoaks

Industrial workflows aren’t compatible with presoak step, and postwash treatment may be more effective.

Retail cart and item disinfection

This fad is no longer a common practice for most consumers.

Misting and disinfection booths

This fad is almost totally gone except for extreme situations.

Sources: American Cleaning Institute, Clariant, Ecolab, Evonik Industries, UNX Industries.

Though surfactant sales in the industry were robust in 2021, disinfectant ingredients were down relative to 2020. Dagostino attributes the shift—from disinfection obsession to balanced cleaning—to increased consumer education. To fight SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, most surfaces don’t need constant disinfection as much as they need regular cleaning, he says.

And even the need for surface cleaning isn’t as strong as it was once thought to be. After publishing extensively on protocols for killing SARS-CoV-2 on hard surfaces in 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance in April 2021 to say that airborne respiratory droplets are the main vector for transmission. A CDC web page about surfaces now says, “It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low.”

At the same time, cleaning is a way that individuals can feel some power over the virus. “People take comfort in cleaning,” Dagostino says. Normal dishwashing and laundry practices have been effective against SARS-CoV-2 all along, so surfaces and hands offer people places they can take an active role to scrub the pandemic off.

The public also got used to cleaning surfaces. “We tend to have these consumption habits,” says Fabio Caravieri, the head of global marketing for industrial and consumer specialty chemicals at Clariant. “And what is interesting is we hate to change, right? But when we change something, it’s very difficult to come back.”

Rebecca Watters, an analyst at the market research firm Mintel, says the polling data she sees suggest that demand for disinfectants isn’t going anywhere. “Consumers remain highly conscious of the virus and other invisible health threats,” she says. “Only 31% say they will disinfect less once the pandemic ends. What’s more, only 25% of adults who use surface cleaners say they will worry less about decontaminating items that enter the home when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”

Any dips in home-care due to new information about transmission or reopening of schools and businesses have been balanced by increased institutional demand, according to Aaron Lee, vice president for home-care and industrial cleaning at the chemical distributor Univar Solutions.

“Early in the pandemic, it was all about having a safe home environment,” Lee says. As people have come out of their quarantine bubbles, he says, they still want to be in safe and clean settings. “So things like hospitality, hotels, restaurants, and airlines—people expect those to be as clean as they do their homes.”

The line between home and institutional cleaning has blurred in more than one way. “There is also a consumer desire for psychological safety that has increased the value of brand recognition,” says Matt Bierman, Dow’s North America market manager for industrial and institutional cleaning. “Practically speaking, this has created more opportunities in the janitorial space for brands that had previously been home-care focused as companies seek to reassure the weary consumer outside of the home.”

Certain public-space transmission-fighting measures, such as disinfection tents and drones armed with misters, were fads and are mostly gone, Bierman says. But intense cleaning practices in high-touch, high-throughput spaces are likely here to stay. Businesses are cleaning, and they want you to see them do it.

Ryan Cotroneo, chief technology officer at the cleaning chemical firm UNX Industries, says the many businesses that have started wiping down and otherwise cleaning equipment between customers will continue to do so even after COVID-19 becomes less of a daily concern.

To make cleaning between customers practical, ingredient makers have been working to reduce what’s called dwell time—the amount of time a chemical must sit wet on a surface to kill germs. Quaternary ammonium compounds, or quats, are the disinfectant chemicals at work in most ready-to-use wipes, many sprays, and a range of institutional and industrial cleaning products.

At the start of the pandemic, the kill claims approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency for most quats called for 10 min dwell times. Today, several companies offer formulations that do their work in as little as 30 s. Increasing the concentration of disinfectant chemicals in the formulations is the main way to speed up the germ-killing action, according to Cotroneo.

Cotroneo says he’s also seen increased acceptance of other disinfectant chemistries. Beyond bleach, which is effective but limited in where it can be used, peroxides, reducing agents such as citric and lactic acid, and even a few botanical essential oils have made it onto List N, the EPA’s database of products considered effective against SARS-CoV-2. And several of those nonquat, nonbleach formulations have dwell times under a minute.

A silver lining from the pandemic is a more scientifically literate populace, at least on some topics, Mintel’s Watters says. “We’re seeing consumers pay a lot more attention to different claims and those different ingredients.” The openness to less-well-known disinfectants is one result.

“A lot more consumers are taking it upon themselves to be researching these different products,” she says, because the stakes have changed. “If I’m buying something that’s not going to work, it’s not just about wasting money. It’s the protection and safety of my home.”

Concentration is a trend beyond just disinfectant ingredients. Online shopping for cleaning products has taken off during the pandemic, Watters says, and no one wants to pay for shipping the water in conventional liquid cleaners.

The ACI’s Hockstad says concentrates are seeing their biggest gains in home laundry, in the form of pods. The trend looks durable, in part because brands and retailers are locking in the gains with subscription models.

Because higher concentrations mean smaller packages and less fuel spent on shipping, it also fits well with sustainability, a theme that stayed more in focus during the pandemic than many thought it would. Packaging is also a major expense, Caravieri says, so brands may draw higher profit margins from concentrates that need less of it.

Concentrates require different chemicals, ones that some executives describe as the next generation of ingredients.

It’s not a fad where we’re expecting some significant drop-off as we look to this year and beyond.
Melissa Hockstad, CEO, American Cleaning Institute

“The more we move in the direction of high concentration, I see a transition from using traditional surfactants like lauryl ether sulfates or anionic surfactants to using more sophisticated technologies like soil-release polymers and enzymes,” Caravieri says. “Of course, they’re more expensive, but in the high-concentrate formulations, they usually have a better cost-performance ratio than just adding additional load of surfactants.”

After the panic of 2020, “excessive” cleaning faded in most households in 2021, BASF’s Gupta says. But what remained is consumers who are demanding more from their cleaning products. “Consumers want the same feeling of clean,” she says, “but they want to feel good about their purchasing decisions, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced. They want quick, easy cleaning solutions that are good for their families and the environment.”

Marketing executives say that during the pandemic, cleaning has taken on a new importance, an emotional connection akin to the thriftiness of the generations that lived through the Great Depression. “While fads in cleaning are inevitable,” Dow’s Bierman says, “the most likely long-term trend is a more prominent focus on the concept of cleanliness that could become a generational touchstone.”


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