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Consumer Products

Improved science literacy

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
January 30, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 4


“COVID-19 Clean Is the New Clean” is the title of C&EN reporter Craig Bettenhausen’s latest feature, which covers the soap and detergent market (C&EN, Jan. 24, 2022, page 22).

The cleaning industry has experienced unprecedented demand for its products and services since the pandemic began. Bettenhausen’s story delves into some of the trends that have emerged in the cleaning ingredient market in the past 2 years and how manufacturers are adapting to serve their customers’ changing habits. Some of these trends are here to stay, according to the experts. These enduring trends include reduced packaging, improved sustainability, formulas with greater potency and concentration, and a desire for transparency and ease of use.

What caught my attention is the comment by one of the sources interviewed for the story.

Rebecca Watters, an analyst at the market research firm Mintel, says that the public has become more scientifically literate on some topics because of the pandemic: “We’re seeing consumers pay a lot more attention to different claims,” such as the antiviral efficacy of cleaning products. According to Watters, there is a greater openness to less-well-known disinfectant ingredients.

That is an interesting and welcome statement. Greater scientific literacy among the general population means people are better able to think more critically about the information they receive and weigh the evidence. This results in a more empowered population who can make their own choices when it comes to science-related issues like their health or the environment.

Recent surveys and other studies support Watters’s comment and suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped make the public more familiar with not only scientific terminology but also how the scientific process itself works.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence regarding people’s overall comfort with using epidemiology or immunology terms, for example. In the past 2 years, many of us have been exercising in a gym, picking kids up from school, or queuing up at a supermarket and overheard a conversation that involved lines such as:

“We are flattening the curve,”

“His PCR was positive, but he is asymptomatic,”

“This new variant is more transmissible but less virulent,”

“The FDA just authorized the vaccine booster for my kids,” and even

“We can relax once the R number goes below 1.”

But the change seems to have gone deeper than understanding and using scientific terms appropriately. Despite the rampant disinformation campaigns fueled by pockets of individuals who are not interested in the facts, there is greater science knowledge thanks to the pandemic. As people have learned how to take care of themselves and others through the pandemic, many have also learned more about how vaccines work and why clinical trials are important.

In the process, the public has also become familiar with important agencies and the work they do—think about the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. People are also more familiar with pharmaceutical corporations, such as Pfizer and Moderna, that have produced lifesaving vaccines and therapies.

I’m hopeful that this pandemic-motivated openness to science and improved science literacy—and not just the cleaning habits—are here to stay. When it comes to the war on disinformation, news organizations like C&EN have some weapons in our armory (such as fact-checking) that we will continue to wield.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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