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Harnessing the natural power of microbes to create sustainable products


They may be invisible to the human eye, but microbes can pack a mighty punch when it comes to making more effective, sustainable products. Find out how we’re using our knowledge of microbial diversity to work with our bodies and shape products that bring it back into balance.

Woman making a heart shape with her hands over her stomach

Did you know that your body is home to more than a 100 trillion microbes? These include bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in communities called microbiomes that are as personal to you as your own fingerprint.

And humans are not the only place where microbes can be found. They’re also present in the world’s oceans, soils, in food, on plants and animals. They can be found in our homes on our pets, and even in the world’s subways, co-existing with us and our environment.

While we’ve made some amazing progress and discoveries in recent years, research has only scratched the surface of the microbiome and the effect they can have on the health and balance of the environments where they live. But what is clear is that the natural powers of these invisible communities are a force to be reckoned with.

The case for a natural balancing act

When the bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes that make up the human microbiome are living in harmony all is well. When they aren’t, you know about it. “An imbalance in the microbiome of the skin, scalp and oral surfaces can cause conditions such as eczema, atopic dermatitis, acne, dandruff and gingivitis,” says Unilever VP of Science and Technology for Beauty and Personal Care, Sam Samaras. “In addition, the replacement of these natural colonisers by pathogenic microbes, including viruses, has been linked to the transmission of communicable diseases.”

“An imbalance in the gut, meanwhile, can also cause real problems”, adds Science and Technology Manager for Foods & Refreshment, Dr Simone Pyle. “Microbes play a very important role in the gut. In fact, without the gut microbiome, it would be very difficult to survive.

“When we think about our gut microbiome people assume we mean gut health and it can play a major role in gut diseases and disorders but it does much more. The bacteria in our gut produces vitamin K and B, as well as fatty acids. It’s where 70% of our body’s immune system is found. And it’s sometimes called the second brain because 90% of the happy neurotransmitter serotonin is found in the gut.”

Using our research to boost ‘good’ microbes

Sam and Simone are part of Unilever’s team of R&D scientists who have spent years researching the microbiome and its part in a range of health and wellbeing needs. And their hard work has paid off. They have more than 100 patents and publications in this space.

What they’ve discovered is that instead of tackling ‘bad’ microbes with broad spectrum anti-microbial products, there is more benefit in developing products that work to maintain a healthy diversity of microbes and that help the body’s ‘good’ microbes.

On World Microbiome Day we’re taking time to celebrate how understanding these approaches is helping us make better choices about the products we develop and produce, so they are more sustainable for the planet.

Taking a multi-pronged approach

For the Beauty & Personal Care team, making the most of the powers of microbes requires a multi-pronged approach.

  • The first strand has seen the development of products that are microbiome gentle and take the ‘Do no harm’ approach. These are mild or pH balanced products that address the issues at hand but also work to preserve good microorganisms through the use of mild surfactants and actives that don’t disturb resident microbes and maintain the skin’s ability to support a healthy microbiome.
  • The second strand are prebiotics, which help good bacteria flourish and crowd out the bad bacteria, or probiotics, where you add more good bacterial to the ecosystem.
  • The third strand is a responsible and sustainable hygiene strategy “which kills off harmful microbes but doesn’t compromise the good. So instead of using broad-spectrum antimicrobials, we design products that retain a good diversity of microbes in, on and around us, and maintain our ability to fight bad microbes through our own skin innate immunity,” says Sam.

Self care can increase our body’s “self defence”

The team may have two decades of knowledge to call on but it’s only the beginning of the journey. “Growing our understanding of human microecology and human-microbiome interactions will unlock new opportunities for innovating sustainable product technologies,” Sam says.

Creating products that enhance our body’s own “self-defence” capabilities and that see us target a problem more precisely, rather than taking a broad-brush approach, will result in a more impactful use of ingredients and give consumers improved results. This will allow us to create products that drive Positive Beauty, for people and the planet - beauty that not only does less harm but also does more good.”

And the opportunity for creating products that use the power of microbes to enhance consumers health and wellbeing is not only seeing developments in beauty and personal care. Unilever is also utilising this science in vitamins, minerals and supplements.

Ensuring every bite does good

In Foods & Refreshment, part of fixing the broken food system is about creating foods that are more nutritious and beneficial to the consumer and where “every bite has to do good.” It’s why we have committed to doubling the number of products that deliver positive nutrition by 2025.

“We are focused on the bigger picture to build our understanding of how the gut microbiome can make everyday a little better. We are working with experts in the field to understand the role of the gut microbiome in areas such as personalised responses to diet, immunity, children’s growth and development, ageing and mental wellbeing,” says Simone.

Developing our expertise in these areas allows us to create targeted approaches to positively modulate the gut microbiome via our food and beverage products,” she adds.

In addition to the gut microbiome, we understand that how we grow and source our food is important. Unilever is committed to reducing the environment footprint of our food system. We are investigating how to positively enhance the soil microbiome to produce more nutritious crops and therefore improve health for people and the planet.

And that’s just the beginning in terms of tapping a huge natural resource that can contribute to re-establishing a healthy balance between nature, food systems and people.

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