Picture of perfection: Cleanfulencers, the latest social media trend, are here to help

By posting endless images of sparkling homes, ‘cleanfluencers’ are building a growing following. But what happens if your own place doesn’t scrub up quite so well, asks

Picture of perfection: Cleanfulencers, the latest social media trend, are here to help

By posting endless images of sparkling homes, ‘cleanfluencers’ are building a growing following. But what happens if your own place doesn’t scrub up quite so well, asks Helen O’Callaghan

IT’S lunchtime and so far today Ellen O’Keeffe has done two loads of washing, cleaned the breakfast dishes, cleaned the hob, sink and kitchen counter – and hoovered and mopped the floors.

“Today’s a good day,” says the Waterford-based mum of three and cleaning blogger who took Instagram by storm last summer after she shared how she gets her towels fluffy. “It was a complete accident — I was just going about my day, sharing my daily life on Instagram. I was putting in the towels to wash and I mentioned that I use vinegar instead of fabric softener and suddenly I was getting all these messages: ‘Why? How do you know this?’ I didn’t expect people to be so interested.”

But interested they are. Cleaning is the new big — and clean influencers have gone viral across social networks, from British Instagrammer Lynsey ‘Queen of Clean’ Crombie (she urges flipping your rug upside down and vacuuming it to push out all the dirt) to Toronto-based YouTuber Melissa Maker of Clean My Space (tips include crouching down to eye level after you’ve cleaned your kitchen counter to “see if anything else pops out at you”).

Crombie has 112,000 followers and Maker has just over one million but the big sister of cleaning influencers is Essex clean guru Sophie Hinchcliffe aka Mrs Hinch. With a book due in April — Hinch Yourself Happy: All The Best Cleaning Tips To Shine Your Sink And Soothe Your Soul — Mrs Hinch has amassed two million followers with her clever cleaning hacks and addictive charm.

One minute the 27-year-old is sharing advice for cleaning sink drains (“I don’t have a dishwasher but I do have dishwasher tablets – put a dishwasher tablet in your sink drain and pour boiling water ‘til the tablet melts”) or eulogising cream cleaners (“I find them the most fun — they don’t drip all over the show”).

The next minute followers are getting glimpses of life in the Hinch household — talking to her dog, lying comfy on the bed: “Angel Face, it’s not bedtime babe, we’re going out tonight.” She has given her cleaning efforts a personal re-branding – cleaning is ‘hinching’, her followers the #HinchArmy, product buying is a ‘hinch haul’ (“that’s a beaut of a mop,” she eulogises on one such trip). And the whole thing is shot through with bop-inducing pop music — what’s not to like about cleaning, how could it not be fun?

Cork-based mum of two Sharon has been following Mrs Hinch since back when she had 800,000 followers. “My friends were all following her so I started and I was intrigued. I used to get very stressed about cleaning, but Mrs Hinch brings it down to a 15-minute Hinch – she sets a timer for 15 minutes and maybe start upstairs, dusting the skirting boards in all the bedrooms and polishing the surfaces. When she has done those, she looks to see how much time’s left and she might get all the upstairs hoovered.

“I used to find cleaning the kitchen very daunting but when you break it down into segments it’s actually quite enjoyable. Mrs Hinch puts on her music and she makes cleaning easy and fun,” says the busy mum, who pops on the Instagrammer’s site two or three times daily. She has learned tons of tips including how to clean her carpets and the best disinfectant to use on her taps. Ninety percent of Sharon’s friends follow Mrs Hinch. “We always talk about her.”

O’Keeffe became“cleaning addicted” while pregnant with first son, Aidan, now four. “I was researching everything about cleaning. I was so consumed I didn’t see it as intense. People were saying ‘Ellen, isn’t this a bit much, you don’t need to clean the bathroom three times a day’. To me it seemed normal but yes, it was way over the top.”

The cleaning craze dropped post-pregnancy but returned when she was expecting Finn, three, and it was only while pregnant with Cobh, one, that she realised she had to find a balance between letting it take over and not cleaning at all. Her solution was to set timers with realistic times. “I take 10 minutes and get whatever four or five jobs in the room done. In TV ad breaks I give the bathroom a quick wipe down or I do the dishes, so it doesn’t take over the whole day. When things pile up, it becomes intimidating. Little and often helps people feel in control and have a sense of achievement.”

With somewhere over 31,000 followers, she doesn’t post something cleaning-related every day (“there’s only so much cleaning people want to see”) but she pops on daily and answers questions. The common ones are: How can I clean my shower screen doors? How do I get a streak-free finish on tiles? How do I clean my leather sofa? What about pen on leather – how do I get it out? What can I do about blood stains? O’Keeffe senses her followers are aged 24 to 45. “I think they fall into two categories – first-time home-owners who have pride in having their own house and want to keep it clean and how do they manage it while working. And parents who are trying to find that balance between work, kids and cleaning.”

So why has cleaning taken such hold of our minds? Why has it achieved such cachet in popular culture? Clinical psychologist Dr Jennifer Twyford-Hynes, member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, believes the trio of de-cluttering, organising and cleaning are related to the rise in recent years in consumerism and over-consumption. “People have accumulated a lot more products in their home and one of the struggles is being able to live in your home with this amount of stuff and still be able to function.”

Pointing to our natural fascination with other people’s lives, which attracts us to photo hosting sites and the likes of Instagram, Twyford-Hynes says there’s societal pressure when we’re exposed to these images. “There’s pressure to organise our things in a certain way when we’re exposed to other people’s homes through Instagram.”

And then there’s the fact that not everyone would like to show their body on social media — whereas it’s much easier to change their home and make it look a certain way. “And just like the before-and-after makeup photos, the before-and-after weight-loss pictures, if you’re showing your dirty house first and then again after cleaning it’s like progress pictures,” says Twyford-Hynes.

Social media consultant Kerry Fitzgerald agrees.

“If you see Kim Kardashian wearing a Valentino dress and drinking expensive champagne, you’re going to feel worse about yourself because it’s never going to be like that for you. But if you see Mrs Hinch cleaning her washing machine with vinegar it’s attainable, it’s something you can do. And it’s very manageable, bite-sized things— how to re-arrange your cutlery drawer and clean your sink — rather than big overwhelming things that you wouldn’t even start on.”

The whole cleaning drive is part of the Marie Kondo effect. The Japanese tidying aficionado achieved international renown in 2014 when her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was published in English.

On her website, konmarie.com, Kondo’s purpose is described as ‘helping people to transform their cluttered homes into spaces of serenity and inspiration’. Her reality series, Tidying up with Kondo, launched on Netflix in January. In the context of the Marie Kondo influence (she urges people to retain only items that bring joy and to thank unwanted items before binning them), it isn’t surprising cleaning has taken off.

Cleaning is often something people do when they are stressed, feel anxious and want to regain control. According to researchers, the therapeutic effect of simply watching someone clean is due to ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Still relatively newly understood, ASMR describes a sensation of euphoric tingling/relaxation experienced when someone watches certain videos/hears certain sounds. Examples are generally quiet, peaceful tasks like towel-folding, hair-brushing or turning of magazine pages.

Cleaning can be very enjoyable and satisfying, says Twyford-Hynes. “There’s a physicality to it, it gets us moving and it can be rewarding, so there’s a feelgood factor.” She also points out that, for most, jobs have become increasingly complex.

“We’re not doing simple tasks so we don’t have a sense of mastery of tasks completed. It can be very helpful for our self-esteem if we’re able to bring about a change in our environment — cleaning involves lots of little mini-tasks that we can complete and see results quite quickly.”

Environment impacts on psychological wellbeing too and Twyford-Hynes points out that an ordered, easy-to-access environment reduces mental load. “A lot of visual clutter in our homes can be overwhelming for our brain and interfere with us focusing on tasks.”

But when does all this cleaning tip over into obsession? Excessive cleaning is, after all, one of the five sub-types of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

O’Keeffe says if it begins to affect other normal life activities it’s time to call a halt. “If you’re cancelling plans or putting cleaning above spending time with family or missing your favourite TV show, you need to step back – because the cleaning can wait.”

Spending a lot of time doing something enjoyable or necessary doesn’t automatically mean you’ve become obsessive about that activity, says Twyford-Hynes. “If someone has tendencies towards obsession, it might be problematic, but that’s not specific to cleaning.

Unless an activity is taking up disproportionate time or is affecting work or relationships, for the vast majority of people it’s not a problem.”

And can you be a feminist and spend hours cleaning your home? The well-known cleaning influencers are women and so are their followers – O’Keeffe says 98% of her followers are female. But she points to “a few men” who have cleaning accounts – like Instagrammer James #cleaningwithj (he describes himself as ‘just a guy who loves to clean’). “One minute he’s telling you how he’s doing in the gym – the next he’s telling you how to unclog your drains,” remarks O’Keeffe.

You can be a feminist and be anything you want, says Twyford-Hynes. “People make similar arguments about lipstick and make-up. If it feels like a conscious, free choice, it’s not a problem.”

Fitzgerald is amused that many of the Instagrammers and YouTubers demonstrating putting on make-up are men but she feels the predominantly female clean influencer culture “probably” reinforces existing gender stereotypes that it’s women who do the cleaning. “Mrs Hinch does get her husband to do his bit but she’s the one whose voice it is and who’s posting herself cleaning.”

Back in Cork, Sharon can’t get the Minky M Cloth (anti-bacterial cleaning pad) endorsed by Mrs Hinch and she’s been looking for it for a while now.

“Sales go through the roof and websites crash any time Mrs Hinch recommends something,” says Fitzgerald, adding that there’s an undoubted commercial influence and cleaning companies have always marketed. “Unilever and Proctor & Gamble were likely setting up ad agencies in the 1920s to market their products. As soon as anybody [on social media] started talking about cleaning, companies would have immediately jumped on it.”

Cleaning has a lot of pluses — it’s a physical, spirit-lifting activity that makes you feel in control of your space. But keeping a sense of balance is vital — much as O’Keeffe does. She loves cleaning sinks (“they’re so shiny afterwards”) and she hates changing the beds (“it’s a full body workout and I have all the boys’ beds to do after ours”).

And her own home is no show-house. “There are Cheerios on the floor and handprints on the wall. I try to keep it as clean as I can but I’m never going to be able to avoid a mess.”

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