What does it mean when something is ‘clean’?

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Not only has the coronavirus pandemic challenged our collective notion of ‘clean’, but it has reminded us that, as with all judgement calls made in daily life, individuals each wield a different measuring stick when it comes to personal safety. It’s human nature.

First, there’s the question of what we mean by clean. Just because something has been cleaned, does that mean it’s currently clean? What’s the difference between ‘clean’ and ‘clean enough’? Then of course, there’s juggling of jargon – clean vs. sanitize vs. disinfect – often used interchangeably and erroneously.

Then there’s how we measure clean.

Clean had traditionally been measured with our senses: sight, touch, and smell. It’s nothing new to take a deep inhale through the nose in search of a trace of bleach or ammonia in the air. We know we can run our finger over a surface feeling for dirt or dust.

Visibly clean used to mean a lack of drips, smears, or smudges on surfaces. To some, visibly clean now also means infection prevention protocols on display – are there hand sanitizing dispensers? Are there people toting cleaning tools? For the most skeptical or sensitive of us, what’s visible may not be enough, as some even pocket a personal UV light to literally shed light on the situation.

Personal UV light is just one tool that can be used to measure clean. One Washington Post columnist recently said, “travelers need a way to verify the cleanliness of a product.” But what does that mean?

Clean is, of course, measured in data. For example, data from community hospitals have shown a significant drop in infection rates since implementing SilvaClean. Or professional sports teams like the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers locker rooms over the last two seasons has shown that, since implementing SilvaClean, pathogen levels have dropped to zero. This kind of data is also what’s required for another measurement of clean – labels and certifications from organizations like the EPA.

People also use others’ standards of clean to set their own. Who else uses a particular product or employs a certain tactic in pursuit of clean? “If it’s good enough for [insert brand here],” some might say, “then it’s good enough for me.” More than just utilizing sanitation brands that customers are already familiar with, providers should seek out innovations being leveraged by notable, trusted brands in outside industries as another way of meeting (or exceeding) expectations.

Clean is also measured in marketing and communications. What is – or isn’t – being said about what’s being done to achieve cleanliness? Are explanations in-depth, ambiguous, or nonexistent?

One Forbes writer, for example, said readers wondering how to tell if their hotel is safe during the COVID-19 crisis should look for a hotel that, “publishes detailed and specific information about its cleaning efforts. For example, it doesn’t just say it cleans public areas; it tells you how often. And it won’t just tell you that it removed certain amenities after the outbreak. Instead, the hotel names the thing it removed (like the breakfast buffet).”

Frank Belzer, Senior Vice President of Portfolio Sales for Universal Parks & Resorts, expressed a similar sentiment. “This ‘given’ concern now needs to be sold and explained and communicated in a way that the average consumer can understand,” he advised. “We will now need to actually start marketing our sanitation processes and whereas in the past we often tried to keep cleaning processes hidden, they are now front and center.”

Is it enough to continue the same processes, shifting only towards greater frequency and visibility? Or has the pandemic proven that old protocols were not enough? Is it time to shift towards innovation, to ask “what can we be doing different?” instead of just doubling up on the status quo?

As society wanders back out of our homes, reclaiming retail, travel, and participation in public life, everyone from clients to providers find themselves in search of clean. It’s important for decision-makers, then, to reflect not only on how they and their customers, employees, and stakeholders measure clean, but also how to truly provide a clean experience.