Our goal is to develop a product using the best possible combination of ingredients to deliver the qualities and benefits our consumers want, while meeting our internal safety and environmental standards and complying with all regulations.
A formulation is the combination of ingredients that make up a product. Unilever formulation specialists use only internationally permitted ingredients and our long experience enables us to apply rigorous safety standards, which are sometimes higher than those set by the regulators.
Natural or synthetic ingredients?
Natural ingredients are often no different in chemical composition from synthetic ones. In fact, everything is a chemical – whether it is natural or man-made and a synthetic ingredient that mimics a natural one can sometimes provide a purer, more stable ingredient, which gives a product a longer usable life. From a lifecycle perspective, the environmental impact of harvesting natural materials and the effects on the number and variety of species found in a particular area or region also need to be taken into account. In practice, it can be better for the environment to use man-made materials.
Unilever's position is that we subject natural ingredients to the same rigorous safety and environmental standards that we apply to synthetic ones. We do not justify the safety of an ingredient just because it is of natural extract.
Many substances, natural and synthetic, have the potential to cause an allergic reaction in a small number of people who have a particular sensitivity.
If you, our consumer, or someone in your family, should experience any adverse effect with any product – whether it is a household product, or a cosmetic or personal care product, or even food – the advice is always to stop using the product immediately. If you are in doubt about an allergy, contact your doctor, who can help identify if you are allergic to a particular ingredient. You can then take steps to avoid that ingredient.
Certain ingredients, such as fragrance, have been identified as more likely to cause an allergic reaction in more sensitive people. Often we cannot leave these ingredients out altogether, because they perform an important function, such as keeping a product from spoiling or adding a pleasant smell. We are expert in formulating products and we use these ingredients at the minimum level required for them to be effective.
Scientific risk assessment shows that products containing these materials generally cause no problems to the vast majority of consumers who can continue to use them without concern.
Our consumers overwhelmingly ask us for fragranced products. We know that fragrance gives a product important sensory characteristics. Consumers like fragranced products and often associate fragrance with a clean house or clean clothes. For example, many people want perfumed fabric softeners to complement the clean smell of newly washed clothes. Consumers often choose products based on efficacy and fragrance.
The fragrance ingredients we use are selected from an approved list of both natural and synthetic ingredients. Our safety and environmental standards are often tighter than the fragrance industry norms and higher than the regulations require.
We are aware that some people can be sensitive to certain fragrance ingredients, even though they have passed international safety assessments. European legislation has identified a list of 26 such ingredients. Our approach is to make sure we use product labels and customer Carelines to inform people when we have used these specific ingredients. For these more sensitive consumers, we offer many of our products in a ‘Sensitive’ range.
We do not exceed this legal labelling requirement because it is impossible to make meaningful comparisons between products if they are not consistently labelled in a standard way. However, we will do our best to help consumers if they have specific concerns, via our Careline phone numbers or the contact address given on our packs.
When consumers buy one of our products, they have high expectations of its quality. For Unilever, this means that any product has to be both effective and safe to use over its entire shelf life in the home. To ensure this quality over time, preservatives are often required, which means that deterioration is highly unlikely in our products. We follow strict guidelines regarding the volumes of preservatives we put in a product. We also minimise the levels needed in the product by ensuring that our manufacturing sites operate at the highest standards of hygiene.
Preservatives are substances that arrest or inhibit the growth of micro-organisms, such as bacteria and mould. Nature uses them – blueberries contain methylparaben, for example. Like the cyanide in the apple seed, when in contact with small amounts they are harmless but, at higher levels, the characteristics that give preservatives their antimicrobial powers can also give them the potential to cause a reaction in people who are allergic to them.
Our risk assessment approach determines maximum levels that are acceptable for each preservative. By carefully combining these ingredients in a formulation, we can use extremely low levels of each single preservative while still being sure about the quality and safety of a product.
Understanding ingredients lists
To ensure consistency for cosmetic and personal care products, manufacturers have a standard way of identifying ingredients, which is called the INCI system. INCI stands for the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. INCI is also mostly used for home care products, with some specific regional or country exceptions.
Unfortunately, this means that ingredients lists can look rather technical, even in the case of the simplest of ingredients, such as salt (sodium chloride) and water (aqua). But a consistent approach to naming ingredients is essential to let consumers easily compare the products they buy – wherever they are.
The word 'parfum' in the list of ingredients indicates the presence of fragrance ingredients. This is the standard term according to INCI. If the list of ingredients does not include the word 'parfum' that does not necessarily mean there are no fragrance ingredients: manufacturers may choose to list individual fragrance ingredients separately.