Keeping people and the environment safe
The science-based approaches we use to keep consumers, workers and the environment safe
To the consumers who trust our brands – and to Unilever – the safety of our products is an absolute priority. That is why each new product innovation is evaluated systematically and scientifically to assess the potential level of safety risk it might present.
Our scientists consider the safety risks to the consumers who use our products, to the workers who make them, and to the environment. Unilever’s safety risk assessments are exposure-driven. This means we first consider exposure – that is, how much, how often and for how long a product will be used. We then apply this knowledge throughout the assessment.
Q. How do Unilever’s exposure-driven safety risk assessments ensure products are safe for consumers?
A. Our starting point is to look at exposure; as mentioned above, this involves understanding how frequently, in what quantity and how regularly a product is used. This information, along with awareness of the level of each ingredient in the product, allows us to calculate how much of each ingredient a consumer will come into contact with.
Our scientists often gain such information in ingenious ways: for example, to better understand consumer exposure of novel ingredients at very low levels in some of our hair care products, our testing replicated simulated shower use procedures. To measure such extremely low levels required extraordinarily sensitive equipment. SEAC scientists built this equipment themselves, using new measurement techniques, which enabled us to capture the data required.
Having established use patterns, we look for scientific evidence of any potential health hazards associated with an ingredient. Since almost everything causes harm if the level of exposure is high enough – even caffeine and Vitamin C – we focus on identifying the level of exposure to each ingredient that would cause harm. Our risk assessments then make sure that the extent of exposure from our products is well below these levels.
Q. How safe is ‘safe’?
A. To understand what we mean by safe, it is important to understand the difference between ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’. Hazard is the potential for an ingredient to cause harm. For example, everyone knows cyanide is harmful, but did you know a small amount is released from apple pips if you eat them?
Risk is the actual likelihood of any harm occurring. It is dependent on exposure: so, in regard to apple pips, the level of risk will depend on how many you eat and how often. You would need to eat well over 100 apple pips in one go to cause yourself any harm. It’s through understanding the link between exposure and hazard that we can define risk. This means low levels of exposure lead to minimal safety risks, which explains why apples are safe to eat – even if you swallow the occasional pip.
It’s also why, when we say a product is safe, we say it is safe for its intended use. For example, a shampoo is safe for washing hair but is likely to cause vomiting if it is drunk in sufficient quantity. SEAC experts apply the best science available for assessing safety to make sure all our products are safe to use every day. However, it is still important to read the label and follow the directions for use and any other advice given.
Q. How does Unilever ensure its products are safe for the environment?
“Unilever’s safety risk assessments are exposure-driven…we first consider… how much, how often and for how long a product will be used.”
A. We use safety risk assessments to determine the risk of any adverse environmental effects arising from the use and disposal of our products. Our safety risk assessments are exposure-driven: that is, since many of our products ultimately go ‘down the drain’ after use, we assess what happens to each of the ingredients once they are disposed of, often after wastewater treatment, and any potential effects. We take into account factors that could influence the amount of ingredient that enters the environment such as water use in the home and the connection to and type of wastewater treatment.
Q. What types of toxicity does Unilever look for?
A. Below are two examples of the safety risks we assess:
- Microbiology assessments
We conduct safety risk assessments on products to make sure consumers are protected from diseases caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria, algae and fungi. For example, we used safety risk assessments extensively for our in-home water purifiers, Pureit and Qinyuan: these products help to reduce exposure to contaminated water and are particularly valued in developing countries, where many consumers rely on bottled water or on boiling it. SEAC’s assessments helped to ensure that the hazards (microorganisms) in water could be removed or reduced to safe levels.
To ensure we continue to develop new science, we collaborate with external experts to keep abreast of the latest approaches and technologies for treating drinking water.
- Allergy assessments
We want our food products to be safe for consumers with allergies. At the same time, we prefer to avoid using too many ‘may contain’ statements, unless products actually pose a safety risk to those with a food allergy. Our leading food allergy scientists work with other allergy experts to understand ‘how much is too much?’ so that we can refine production processes to achieve safe levels. We also work closely with food safety authorities and patient groups to better understand how to clearly communicate allergen-related safety risks.
Case study: Spreading the safety message
“Our scientists consider the safety risks to the consumers who use our products, to the workers who make them, and to the environment.”
A comprehensive SEAC safety risk assessment has helped millions of consumers benefit from cholesterol-lowering Flora/Becel pro.activ margarine.
The brand’s key ingredient is a natural group of chemicals called phytosterol-esters. Phytosterols occur in the fruit and vegetables we eat as part of a normal diet, while the ‘esters’ part of the ingredient comes from vegetable oil. Although you get some phytosterols in a typical diet, by eating Flora/Becel pro.activ you consume more. Phytosterols have been proven to lower cholesterol in humans, so reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
We pioneered the use of phytosterol-esters by providing scientific evidence that the ingredient is safe, however much margarine you eat. This included:
- carrying out a safety risk assessment based on a thorough understanding of how much margarine people consume, including those who eat a lot
- submitting safety dossiers to regulatory agencies worldwide
- leading discussions with academics and regulators
Today pro.activ is an established and popular Flora/Becel product – and SEAC was a key player in the team that brought it to consumers.