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Schoolgirls wearing red Lifebuoy T shirts and caps make palm prints

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Clean water and sanitation

Handwashing for life

Average read time: 12 minutes

Through Lifebuoy’s Social Mission programmes and communications, we’ve helped over 1 billion people develop better handwashing habits, improving hygiene, protecting against illness and helping to prevent childhood deaths.

Children sitting in a classroom learn about handwashing

Handwashing with soap saves lives

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1 Child dies from pneumonia or diarrhoea every 23 seconds

According to UNICEF, every 23 seconds a child somewhere in the world dies from either pneumonia or diarrhoea. Yet we know that handwashing can reduce incidences of pneumonia by 23%, and diarrhoea by up to 45%. Goal 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognises handwashing with soap as crucial to better health too.

We’ve long been taking action to combat illnesses and deaths caused by preventable infections. Back in 1894, William and James Lever created Lifebuoy soap to ‘make cleanliness commonplace’.

Lifebuoy is one of our leading brands whose purpose is preventing illness and saving lives through handwashing with soap. It’s become the world’s number one selling germ protection soap. It’s the only soap to be accredited by the UK’s Royal Society of Public Health. And it’s an affordable brand because we believe that best-in-class hygiene should be a right for everyone.

Through our decade-long Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (PDF 8.02MB) (Opens in a new window) we set out to help more than 1 billion people develop good handwashing habits, which we achieved in 2018. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in 2020, these habits became even more critical.

One of the first lines of defence against Covid-19

Medical authorities are clear: washing our hands thoroughly and frequently with soap – or using sanitiser where soap and water are not available – is one of the most effective ways to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Lifebuoy was the first handwashing brand to prove 99.9% effectiveness against Covid-19.

In only 72 hours, we put out public service announcements following public health guidelines to raise awareness of handwashing with soap as a key measure to stay protected. Our message was clear: wash your hands with soap, not just Lifebuoy, but any soap, even that of our competitors. We did this in more than 17 countries, reaching over a billion households. And we continue to amplify this message wherever, and whenever, we can.

To encourage better hand hygiene practices, we also worked with various organisations to position around 1,000 static and mobile handwashing stations and sanitiser dispensing stations in clinics, schools and hospitals in Africa and Asia. The stations feature hands-free mechanisms like foot-operated fixtures.

As well as producing 600 times more sanitiser in 2020, we brought out eight new Lifebuoy products, including masks, immunity-boosting sanitisers and hand and surface spray. We expanded from 60 countries to 115-in just a few months.

From two to 61 hand sanitiser factories – in six months

When news of the Covid-19 outbreak first came out, we immediately started working out how we could ramp up production of hand sanitisers.

We moved at a pace that was previously unimaginable. Within six months, we went from producing around 700,000 sanitisers a month to 100 million . We increased from just two third-party partners to 57, located all over the world. And we now produce more than 50 different packs of hand sanitiser across the business.

We’ve introduced Lifebuoy aerosol sprays in addition to our gels. But it’s not just Lifebuoy we’ve harnessed: Lux's range has fantastic fragrances, and brands such as Rexona deodorants in Latin America and Suave hair care in the US – which until now didn't offer hand hygiene products at all – have launched sanitisers.

Every sanitiser meets WHO standards for helping to prevent the spread of infections.

Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition

In March 2020, we announced that Unilever would provide free soap, sanitiser and other products to the value of €100 million.

Lifebuoy is supporting Unilever’s £100 million programme in partnership with the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition – to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

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1 billion People reached via the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition

The Coalition includes 21 non-governmental organisation (NGO) delivery partners operating across 37 countries. NGO partners draw on the hygiene behaviour change expertise of brands, including Lifebuoy and Domestos. Through on-ground programmes, access to essential hygiene products and public health messaging, the Coalition set out to reach 1 billion people worldwide, which it achieved in 2021 . Over 500,000 handwashing stations have been installed; more 140,000 community health workers and teachers have been trained to deliver information on the importance of correct hygiene practice; and over 75 million Unilever hygiene products have been donated and distributed in more than 60 countries.

Responding to disasters and emergencies explains how we’re allocating funding and product donations.

Extending our reach

At the heart of our approach are the long-standing, on-the-ground programmes that we run with mothers and children in schools, health clinics and community outreach programmes.

But more and more, we’re using the power of digital technology and mass TV advertising to transform the way we reach people. And our partnerships with governments and NGOs enable us to have an even bigger impact and reach those most in need, playing a key role in contributing to the SDGs.

Good hygiene habits should start at a young age

We know that children’s behaviour is heavily influenced during the primary school years, kids are powerful agents of change who use their pester power to take messages back to their parents and wider communities. So, our flagship schools programme is a crucial part of Lifebuoy’s handwashing behaviour change activities.

For example, Unilever South Africa is working with the government on the National Schools Hygiene and Sanitation programme. Our target is to reach the country’s 1 million Grade One learners with handwashing education across 15,000 schools each year. In 2020, we distributed hand hygiene materials to 12,000 schools reaching over 80,000 students.

With the onset of Covid-19, we were asked to extend the programme to all school grades – that’s 12 million students – with schools closed. We took the programme digital, using an e-learning tool. Our partnership with the government enabled us to access TV, websites, digital and social media to put out hygiene education focused content.

We also transformed our hygiene education programme into a germ-busting gaming platform called Hygienica Castle with support from the Department of Basic Education. Kids create their own hygiene superhero avatar, earning points towards fun rewards for better hygiene habits. This meant that children could still learn handwashing lessons, even with schools shut.

But Covid-19 aside, we’ve been thinking what we could do to get our simple message across even more effectively. We believe the answer is to start conveying that life-saving lesson even earlier.

H for Handwashing

‘H for Handwashing’ was built on the premise that effective behaviour change must start at an early age. We took inspiration from UNICEF’s early childhood development research, which demonstrates that the right support and interventions in the early years of life can significantly boost child development, helping them to grow, learn and thrive.

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H is for Handwashing

For generations, children have been taught letters of the alphabet through simple associations such as ‘A’ is for apple, ‘B’ for ball and ‘C’ for cat. From Global Handwashing Day (GHD) 2020, no longer will ‘H’ stand for horse, hat or even home. ‘H’ must stand for Handwashing.

Lifebuoy is a founding partner of the Global Handwashing Partnership. And each year on 15 October, over 200 million people worldwide take part in celebrating GHD across more than 100 countries. In 2020, the launch of our €30 million H for Handwashing campaign reached over 124 million people across 30 countries.

We partnered with the New Delhi government in India to disseminate interactive H for Handwashing teaching materials across 400 schools reaching more than 4,000 children. And in South Africa, we signed a declaration of intent with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF, committing to drive hygiene behaviour change in schools.

We’re creating an unforgettable hand hygiene reminder, ensuring that handwashing with soap becomes a lesson nobody forgets.

Kartik Chandrasekhar, Lifebuoy’s Global Brand Vice President

Superheroes bring our message to life

The best way to get kids to learn a new habit is to make it fun. And what could be more fun than superheroes?

We teamed up with specialist children’s communications agency, Yoe, to create Lifebuoy’s School of 5 comic book. The five superhero characters – Biff, Pow, Bam, Hairyback and Sparkle – come to life in animations, radio shows, music, games, and school visits. They each have an important message to get across – encouraging kids to wash their hands with soap at the critical moments in the day.

This programme follows our Five Levers for Change (PDF 3.85MB) (Opens in a new window) behaviour change methodology. So far, School of 5 has reached more than 60 million children and 300 million people worldwide with over 25 external partners. The scale of the programme helps us to attract more external partners to come on board, which in turn helps to further increase our impact and reach.

Helping mothers

Tragically, every year, 2.5 million babies die before turning one month old (Opens in a new window) – and almost 350,000 of these deaths (Opens in a new window) are due to infections. Research shows that around 41% could be prevented (Opens in a new window) simply by helping new mums and midwives change their handwashing behaviour.

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20 million Mothers reached in Asia and Africa

Over the past decade, we’ve reached more than 20 million mothers across Asia and Africa, providing them with hygiene education through community visits and neonatal clinics.

Our largest programmes in Indonesia are run in partnership with government, enabling health workers and women’s groups to teach mothers about handwashing with soap. And our research shows that 90% of programme participants talk about what they’ve learned to their friends, family and neighbours, increasing our positive impact.

Reaching more mothers through mobile technology

Mobile technologies are widely adopted in developing countries, even in rural areas. Knowing this, we designed and piloted the world’s first handwashing behaviour change programme using mobile technology.

Our Lifebuoy Mobile Doctarni service provides mothers in rural India with free, easily accessible advice about their child’s health. How does it work? A mother makes a phone call but hangs up before she is connected. Mobile Doctarni then calls her back, sharing health information adapted to her child’s age.

Pilot results showed the service increased the frequency of handwashing by 50% among participants.

Lifebuoy is now partnering with foundation The Power of Nutrition (Opens in a new window) to create a Mobile Doctarni model so we can replicate it in other areas and reach 2.7 million mothers in India.

Our Lifebuoy Infection Alert System (IAS) also uses mobile technology, as well as government data from 34,000 rural community health centres in India. When an outbreak of disease is predicted, the IAS activates an automatic calling system. This makes around 8 million calls each week, alerting people about diseases in their areas, and reminding them that handwashing with soap is the most effective protection.

A young girl washes her hands with liquid soap at an outdoor sink

Combining forces for impact

We’re combining our handwashing outreach with other health programmes to have an even bigger impact. For instance, we’re working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Opens in a new window), to protect children under five in India from illnesses and premature death. We’re promoting handwashing with soap and immunisation together – as they’re two of the most critical and cost-effective child survival interventions.

The programme, Safal Shuruaat (‘Successful Beginning’) engages people in rural areas through a series of short films, shown door-to-door on tablets. The campaign also sends mobile reminders from Lifebuoy’s Mobile Doctarni programme.

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2.5 million People reached in India through Safal Shuruaat

Independent evaluation has shown that the programme has helped to increase the incidence of handwashing with soap after defecation fivefold. Lifebuoy and Gavi have now expanded this award-winning programme to Indonesia, and Unilever has pledged €3 million for the programme, which Gavi will aim to match.

We also know that hand and face washing can prevent and control the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness: trachoma. So, we partnered with international NGO Sightsavers (Opens in a new window), and adapted our schools handwashing programme to include face washing to address this issue.

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30% Reduction in trachoma's prevalence

Through our Super School of 5 with Sightsavers, we’d reached more than a million people in Kenya, Zambia and Ethiopia by the end of 2019. We’ve trained 2,288 teachers in 247 schools to champion the programme. Together with governmental and other activities, there has been an average 30% reduction in the prevalence of trachoma. Our research (Opens in a new window) into this programme has been accepted for publication, so we can share our findings with others.

Tracking what works

Monitoring handwashing with soap is important so we can learn from our programmes. However, measuring it is difficult, particularly as many people don’t like to admit that they don’t wash their hands.

Young girl holding up soapy palms against a blurred backdrop

We’ve tried a number of methods over the years and found that weighing soap provides an objective measure of the amount of soap used by households. Sticker diaries are also effective – respondents are asked to track a range of daily activities in picture form, without knowing which behaviour we’re interested in. And they help to change behaviours too.

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78% Increase in the use of soap at critical points

In Indonesia, for example, before Lifebuoy’s intervention, 53% used soap at the critical handwashing occasions. After our intervention, this rose to 75%. Six months later, the figure rose again to 78%, showing a lasting impact. A study in India showed that there were 25% fewer incidences of diarrhoea, 15% less acute respiratory infections and 46% fewer eye infections.

Looking ahead

We don’t know what the future will bring in terms of pandemics and global disease. But we do know that Lifebuoy will continue to be at the forefront of efforts to help keep people safe.

Our focus on technology-led solutions will only increase in a post-pandemic world. Digitalising Lifebuoy’s behaviour change programmes and expanding the H for Handwashing movement will enable us to scale up and reach more schools, mothers and children in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. This means we’ll be able to bring the habit of handwashing to more people, particularly the most vulnerable.

We’ll explore new ways to interact with consumers, such as through telemedicine partnerships that help mothers protect their families with soap products and infection management solutions.

And we’ll continue to forge impactful partnerships that focus on holistic health where hygiene has a cross-cutting impact, enabling us to tackle hygiene-related health issues such as malnutrition and immunisation.