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Inside cleancore, an aesthetic sterilising the internet with flashy cleaning supplies

By Malavika Pradeep

Mar 27, 2022

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Imagine squishing a soft sudsy sponge and running it under cool water to wash all the foam from your hands. Now visualise the slight resistance of the spray bottle as you rub a mirror squeaky clean with a wiper blade, hang warm laundry that smells like fabric softener and circulate bubbly bath water with your hands before getting into the tub at the end of the day.

If you’re currently on the verge of a ‘cleangasm’, I’d like to introduce you to your soon-to-be comfort aesthetic: cleancore. On the other hand, if these visuals have left you a bit uncomfortable, then I urge you to stay and join the community in critiquing the capitalist imagery we’re conditioned to associate with sterile settings. Either way, you’re in for a well-sanitised ride into an aesthetic we’ve all been trying to achieve since 2020.

What is cleancore?

Also known as ‘safetycore’ and ‘safety goth’, cleancore is an aesthetic centred around clean objects or products intended to sanitise—think antibacterial soaps, UV lights and antiseptic creams—as well as places that have been recently disinfected. Claimed to have originated in April 2014 on a Tumblr blog called Safety Corp created by Redeem Pettaway, cleancore has two contrasting sub aesthetics: high cleancore and low cleancore.

While the former is a more mature approach to the aesthetic, featuring commercial products like Clorox, Febreze and Purell, ASMR soap cutting videos, latex gloves and steam carpet cleaners, the latter is aimed at a younger audience—with imagery hinging on rubber duckies, bath sponges, Hello Kitty, Lander and, of course, Johnson’s Baby products. In high cleancore, visuals embrace capitalist imagery in a cynical manner, thereby sharing elements with poolcore, icepunk, laundrywave and vaporwave. Sporting key colours like pale blue, white and mint green, this sub aesthetic has a sharp focus on cold and sterile emotions—evoked by antimicrobial hand soap, deodorants, sanitiser sachets, humidifiers and operation rooms—which often overlap into the realm of medicalcore.

Before we move onto its childhood counterpart (low cleancore), let me also acknowledge the looming presence of high cleancore fashion. Yes, it’s exactly what you think it looks like: anything and everything worn while cleaning an object or place. Surgical and gas face masks? Check. Rubber gloves? Locked and loaded. Hazmat suits and reflective vests? Say less.

As for low cleancore, reminisce the time you were left in a towel while your parents decided how to dress you for the day. Featuring a bright colour palette, this sub aesthetic is a kidcore twist on high cleancore. Here, visuals include bath toys, baby shower caps and powder pouffes.

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Spic, Span, and Squeamish

Close to 24 million views on TikTok, the cleancore community can be seen sharing articles on Top 10 cleaning products, stocking up on screen and lens solutions, mouthwash bottles and facial towels—while refilling body wash containers and trialling different types of face masks. Their natural habitat also features cleaning supply hauls at their local supermarket and cupboard tours filled with room fresheners, tissues, q-tips and dryer balls. They can even be found Googling synonyms of the word ‘clean’ and reiterating instructions on how to wash clothes and do the dishes on Tumblr.

“I’m not sure if anyone else experiences this problem, but I can only really use clear or see-through gloves without becoming anxious,” a user admitted on the platform. “Very rarely I can use other types, as long as I open them and know where they’ve been.”

While cleancore caters to an anxiety-stricken audience who find comfort in its imagery, some believe the aesthetic is borderline unsettling, in turn, calling out low cleancore as the infantilisation of hygiene. “Add a stain on the side or something, I don’t know,” reads the comment section on cleancore’s Aesthetics Wiki page. “Just something. It looks too clean and sterile.”

Then comes the entire sphere of cleancore artworks. Branching off the Weirdcore movement, creations often feature PNG images of cleaning supplies, bathtubs, taps and blue skies—to name a few. But just like its parent aesthetic, cleancore artworks evoke both satisfaction and discomfort for audiences. On a quest to analyse this contrasting perception and peek into the community ourselves, SCREENSHOT reached out to Parshall, one of the most prominent artists in the cleancore space on Instagram.

According to Parshall, cleancore is an aesthetic “that revolves around the idea of a place or object appearing clear, fresh, or sterile, but also somewhat surreal.” The artist believes this definition is exactly what grants viewers of the artworks a sense of both cleanliness and uneasiness. “The art shown is based around dreamy-like clean settings,” she explained. “These art pieces typically include bright cool colours and settings that appear very flawless, sanitary, and give somewhat of a nostalgic feeling to it. The overall environment feels clean and items such as household cleaning products, pools, baths, and tile flooring are seen frequently.”

On the other hand, however, the artist highlighted how some cleancore artworks may also have a more distorted effect to them—remember that this is a branch of Weirdcore we’re talking about here—in turn, making them feel somewhat unsettling.

Nurturing a fascination for surreal and whimsical settings, Parshall admitted to being very invested in the dreams she had at night. This is how she eventually discovered the Weirdcore community in late 2019. The following year, the artist stumbled across other smaller subcultures that branched off Weirdcore, one of them being cleancore. “I became extremely fixated on the [cleancore] aesthetic because of how much it reminded me of my dreams,” Parshall said. “At the time I discovered cleancore, there was too little of it and eventually I just kept finding the same images on different accounts. I wanted to see content that combined cleancore and incorporated more of the dreamy elements in it.”

Aiming to contribute to the community by showcasing her ideal cleancore-like dreamy world, Parshall launched her own Instagram account in 2020 and decided to create original content to both satisfy herself and others. “My work kicked off with simple edited photos, but eventually I started making more intricate landscapes and settings,” she added.

When cleancore artworks and edits usually make their way onto TikTok and Instagram, most of the comments echo the same reaction. “Guess who just picked up their mop and dustpan?” users go on to admit, outlining how they feel like running a bath and doing some spring cleaning in December. However, Parshall believes cleancore is not necessarily aimed at encouraging people to disinfect their homes and clean out their closets.

“When I think of cleancore, the first thing that comes to mind is more of an image that brings a feeling of cleanliness and serenity,” she explained. “The works I create are typically in more surreal settings, so I have had others tell me that it can be somewhat unnerving. I think the unsettling feeling comes because of the Weirdcore elements that are incorporated into them, and it can really be subjective for the viewer.”

Inside cleancore, an aesthetic sterilising the internet with flashy cleaning supplies

A sensational way forward

When asked about the design process and tools Parshall uses to make her artworks, she eagerly put Procreate on the list. “Typically when I want to make art, I go in with only a vague idea of what I want to create. A recurring theme in my art is having a bright blue sky background, so that’s always a good place to start if I’m completely out of ideas.” The artist then gathers a bunch of images she wants to use and plans what to make with them.

“Once I have more of a general basis of what I’m doing, I proceed to lay everything out more smoothly and create a scene,” she explained. “From here on, I begin to distort some of the items. This can involve using the ‘lasso’ tool to select parts of the object(s) to split it into little pieces and then put them back together—which makes the object look cubic and distorted.” Parshall also uses the ‘liquify’ tool to make other distortion effects in her artworks, later hand drawing more details and rendering the image before it’s complete.

When I previously interviewed Gib and Sanfor, co-administrators of Weirdcore’s Discord server, they mentioned how Weirdcore had only recently started flooding into the mainstream and escaping the realm of Tumblr to places like Reddit or Twitter. At the time, the community was still expanding the boundaries and experimenting with what is and what isn’t Weirdcore. As an aesthetic gaining traction as we speak, cleancore also seems to be following the same route. The tight-knit community the aesthetic has gathered, however, is one of the most interactive ones to date, according to Parshall’s experience.

“I’ve not seen many artists who have an account dedicated only to cleancore artworks. However, there are many that frequently post more cleancore-inspired content than others,” she said, mentioning @random1i1 and @gorekrampus in this regard. “Others may just repost non-edited photos that relate to cleancore. Instagram users such as @2nt1n, @638xx_____________ and @liquid.software are great accounts to find this type of content.” In terms of the cleancore community, Parshall also added how the members are very supportive of each other’s content. “They are mostly very open to talk about their work and where they get their ideas and inspirations from,” she said. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a progressive aesthetic, if you ask me.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room: COVID-19. For those of you who may have stumbled across cleancore over the pandemic, you may have an itch to comment “This should be renamed as ‘coronacore’,” and “Why is the pandemic an aesthetic now?” Well, for starters, remember that cleancore has roots dating back to 2014 and the emotions associated with cleaning, generally speaking, are not a new concept. Sure, the pandemic has pushed its importance to the forefront, but coronacore would have different elements than cleancore. Think lockdowns, work from home and vaxxies, for example.

However, it also can’t be denied that the pandemic has led to the gross fetishisation of all things “safe” as the new normal, while simultaneously making medical inequalities even more apparent. Take Madonna sitting in a milky bathtub sprinkled with rose petals, declaring COVID-19 as the “great equalizer” on Instagram, despite the fact that thousands of prisoners in New York State had been forced to make hand sanitizers—while being banned from using it themselves due to its alcohol content.

This is exactly the kind of cynical capitalism that high cleancore seeks to critique with its artworks and imagery. Communal bathhouses, despite their association with soap, sponges and bathtubs, are not considered cleancore because the aesthetic in question ties cleanliness to what is new, sterile and privately owned. Parshall advises translating this very vision as your guide, in case you’re interested in making cleancore art in the near future.

“Does cleancore make you feel more calm? Start by creating a setting where you think you would feel clean and peaceful,” she said. “Does cleancore feel more unsettling and you want to have more of that style? Then find what aspects of a cleancore image may make you uneasy, and incorporate more of those aspects into your work.” At the end of the day, don’t limit yourself and know that you have loads of creative freedom in the aesthetic—given how it’s still in its initial stages.

So what are you waiting for? Download some PNGs and do your own thing. And if someone finds hoards of Bath & Body Works logos on your laptop and calls you a “clean freak,” make sure to let them know that they’re the 99.9 per cent of germs hand sanitisers are formulated to terminate.