Moneybox

Clorox and Lysol Want to Kill Germs—and Each Other

The messy history of America’s favorite toilet cleaners.

A Clorox canister and a Lysol canister on horses in a jousting match.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Richard T. Nowitz/The Image Bank via Getty Images Plus, Reckitt Benckiser, and Procter & Gamble.

Whether you’re wiping down the countertop or injecting them into your veins, Clorox and Lysol are two brands that are virtually interchangeable to American consumers.

Each is more than a century old. Each is a leading name in cleaning wipes and disinfectant sprays. Neither can manufacture and ship enough product to satisfy America’s pandemic-driven demand for cleaning, with sales up two- to threefold over the same period last year, according to Nielsen.

And each has it out for the other. They are the Coke and Pepsi of wipes, the Capulets and Montagues of the toilet bowl.

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Just watch the ads: In spot after spot, Lysol is mopping the floor with Clorox. In “Strength Test,” a Lysol wipe holds up a kettlebell and a Clorox wipe breaks. In “Fake It,” Lysol spray kills germs that Clorox wipes cannot. In “Bleach Indicator Test,” Clorox Clean Up turns food brown as observers recoil in horror.

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Last year, Clorox sued Lysol parent company Reckitt Benckiser over the campaign, which Clorox vice president Eric Reynolds called “egregious and misleading.” Clorox says the ads are full of lies that have hurt the Oakland-based bleach company and helped its devious rival gain market share. Lysol, whose U.S. headquarters is in New Jersey, grew its sales by double digits in 2018.

But this was only the latest mess in the surprisingly litigious history between America’s two favorite toilet cleaners.

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Two decades ago, it was Clorox coming for Lysol, with a new product called Clorox Disinfecting Spray designed to take down Lysol’s popular and well-established Lysol Disinfectant Spray (spot the difference?). Clorox boasted its product would work on surfaces for 24 hours—even through repeated touching. “The claim made by Clorox is false,” Lysol manager Steve Rosenberg retorted, in Brandweek. Clorox spray wouldn’t work against infectious diarrhea germs, he added.

Lysol’s disinfectants have been the company’s claim to fame since the start of the 20th century. They were advertised to cure the 1918 flu: “Make a better fight again disease than it can make against you and yours,” reads a New York Times ad from 1918. (They were also marketed to women for vaginal douching, in a long-running series of ads that attributed marital discord to women not practicing “complete feminine hygiene.”)

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For many decades, there was one mess Lysol couldn’t quite clean: Pinesol, the scented floor soap that took off in the 1930s. As the head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office noted in denying Pinesol’s trademark in the 1940s, the “pine” in the name could be slurred to start to sound like “Pysol,” which was awfully close to “Lysol,” which had been trademarked since 1906. Pinesol wouldn’t take no for an answer. Several subsequent lawsuits hammered out the rules around the iconic cleaning fragrance: Pine-Sol had to be spelled with a dash, space, or tree icon between the e and the s. Eventually, Pine-Sol negotiated the right to produce a pump-spray disinfectant—but only if the word “clean” was more prominent than the word “disinfectant.” In return, Lysol got permission to sell Lysol Pine Action Cleaner.

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In 1990, Clorox bought Pine-Sol, and like every previous owner of the trademark, got fed up with the restrictions when it tried to spruce up its new asset. Lysol’s then-owner got a New Jersey state court to issue an injunction against a TV commercial for Pine-Sol, on the grounds that Clorox was leaning too hard into the product’s “disinfectant” properties. (Clorox could sell disinfectant; Pine-Sol could not.) Clorox sued; the brands exchanged more than a million documents during discovery, and the battle went on for five years. Clorox lost, appealed, and lost again in 1997. No Pine-Sol Disinfectant Spray would be produced.

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Such disputes are not unusual among the relatively few, big companies that dominate the consumer product goods sector, said Christine Bittar, a business reporter who chronicled the Clorox-Lysol dispute for Brandweek at the time. She recalled one 2001 incident in which Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble confessed to dumpster-diving for trade secrets outside Unilever’s hair care headquarters in Chicago. “It was like an episode of The Sopranos, but it was these two conservative consumer products companies.” S.C. Johnson & Son sued Clorox over resealable bag ads; Clorox sued P&G over the laundry slogan “whiter is not possible.”

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If Lysol and Clorox found themselves stuck on wartime footing, it might have been because the market for established household cleaners has seemed very nearly saturated. Clorox and Lysol are Nos. 1 and 2 in the $600 million U.S. toilet cleaner market, according to Euromonitor International, with the two companies accounting for two-thirds of all sales. When it comes to the larger $6 billion surface cleaning market, the brands are Nos. 1 and 3 (P&G, maker of Mr. Clean, is No. 2).

The porcelain pie is barely any bigger now than it was a decade ago. Between 2012 and 2017, as personal consumption grew by 17 percent, toilet cleaner sales grew by just 3 percent. Surface cleaners grew faster but still lagged behind consumer purchases as a whole.

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Clorox does have some good points in its false advertising case against Lysol, not all of which require you to get familiar with case-law precedents like the time Subway sued Quiznos over double-meat sandwich ads. In the “Fake It” commercial, Lysol parent Reckitt compared Clorox wipes with Lysol spray. Apples and oranges. Clorox contends that neither product is even long enough to hold up a kettlebell anyway. (At the moment, I’d sooner use my college diploma to lift a kettlebell than my sweet, sweet surface wipes.)

While that case makes its way through the system, the two brands face a weirder challenge: Right now, both Clorox and Lysol are so oversold that eco-friendly cleaning products, shunned at the start of the pandemic, are flying off the shelves. For the moment, Americans aren’t choosing between Clorox and Lysol. They’re not choosing at all.

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