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Health & hygiene

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Good Health and Wellbeing
  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Partnership For The Goals
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  5. Healthy handwashing habits for life

Healthy handwashing habits for life

Through Lifebuoy, we aim to help 1 billion people around the world improve their handwashing habits by 2020.

Girls washing hands as part of global handwashing day.

Pneumonia and diarrhoea are the biggest killers of children under five

Every 23 seconds, a child dies from either pneumonia or diarrhoea worldwide.1 What makes this even more heartbreaking is that most of these deaths are preventable. The simple act of handwashing is the single most effective way of stopping childhood deaths. It can reduce the spread of pneumonia by 23% and diarrhoea by up to 45%.2

However, washing with water alone isn’t enough to clean hands. Handwashing with soap is crucial. Through Goal 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – ensure access to water and sanitation for all – governments around the world have committed to promoting the importance of handwashing with soap. Specifically, through Indicator 6.2.1: proportion of population using safely managed sanitation services, including a handwashing facility with soap and water. And that’s where we come in – and where we’ve been since 1894.

Making soap and saving lives since 1894


Lifebuoy soap box

In 1885, William and James Lever created a soap-producing business – Lever Brothers - making it their purpose to ‘make cleanliness commonplace’. In 1894, the brothers launched Lifebuoy soap to combat cholera in Victorian England and make health and hygiene accessible to everyone.

Lifebuoy is now the world’s number one selling antibacterial soap and grew by 6% in 2017. It’s sold in nearly 60 countries and available across Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Lifebuoy is the only soap to be accredited by the Royal Society of Public Health, London. Its unique “Activ Silver” ingredient gives unbeatable protection from 10 infection causing germs.

We democratise world class hygiene by making it available at the price of €0.06 for a bar of soap because we believe best-in-class hygiene should be a right for everyone, not just for the few who can afford it. It is one of Unilever’s largest Sustainable Living Brands, with a clear purpose of saving lives through handwashing with soap, supporting targets in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

We’ve been encouraging healthy handwashing habits for over 100 years

Soap only works if it’s used effectively and people wash their hands at the critical moments of the day, that is before eating and after going to the toilet. That’s why we aim to improve the handwashing habits of 1 billion people across Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

To do this, in the early twentieth century, Lever Brothers supplied people with charts to record whether they had washed their hands with soap before eating and after using the toilet daily. Today, we run one of the largest handwashing behaviour change programmes in the world that follows some similar principles, while we continue to innovate. Lifebuoy’s School of 5 programme uses our Five Levers for Change (PDF | 4MB) methodology. These five principles focus on awareness, commitment, reinforcement and reward to encourage children and their families to adopt healthy handwashing with soap habits that last.

Since 2010, we’ve reached over 426 million people across Asia, Africa and Latin America through schools, health clinics and community outreach programmes, with proven results.

A randomised control trial in Mumbai carried out in 2008 studied the programme’s impact on health. It showed a 25% reduction in incidence of diarrhoea, a 15% reduction in the incidence of acute respiratory infections and a 27% reduction in school absence.3 Following this, studies in Ghana, Kenya, Bangladesh and Indonesia have shown that people taking part in our programmes wash hands more thoroughly, and more often, using more soap.4

A new paradigm of behaviour change

While our programmes have focused on reaching children and mothers on-ground, we have long believed that our total combined marketing efforts – including mass scale TV advertising - are contributing to changing handwashing behaviour. So, to test this, we ran a study in India - our biggest market - to assess the effectiveness of specific Lifebuoy TV adverts. For this, we used the same methodology that we evaluate our on-ground programmes.

The study showed a significant increase in the frequency of handwashing with soap after people watched the adverts. This result demonstrates that mass media can promote and impact positive health behaviours at scale, giving us the opportunity to reach millions more people through our Lifebuoy brand. As a next step, we are progressing peer review publication and aim to include TV reach in our Health & Hygiene performance figures for 2018 alongside our on-ground programme reach.

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Lifebuoy behaviour change programme

Using mobile to create behaviour change

Governments worldwide are increasingly adopting mobile technologies to deliver public services in areas related to agriculture, education, health and livelihoods. 78% percent of mobile users globally are from developing economies and this percentage is projected to increase rapidly in the coming years.5 Most of the people who access public services through mobile technology are in the Asia Pacific region. For example, Bangladesh performs close to the regional average, with 87%6 of the population being subscribers.

Given these adoption rates, Lifebuoy has designed a behaviour change programme on the importance of handwashing with soap using mobile technology. Piloted in 2016, this service aims to reach out to women in media dark areas, providing free advice to mothers on their child’s health in the comfort of their home.

The service is based on a missed call mechanism, whereby a mother makes a missed call. The system then calls the mother back and begins with establishing whether the mother is a pregnant woman, a mother with a newborn or has school-age children. Health information is then shared with the mother, adapted according to her child or children’s ages.

The programme will be rolled out in 2018.

School of 5: superheroes to the rescue

Lifebuoy Animated Advert

What’s the best way to get kids to do something? Make it fun! And what could be more fun than superheroes?

So we teamed up with the children’s communication specialist agency, Yoe, to create Lifebuoy’s School of 5 comic book, which aims to make handwashing cool for kids. The characters come to life in animations, radio shows, music, games, and school visits. They each have an important message to get across – wash your hands at five key moments in the day: after going to the toilet, before breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in the bath.

Available in 19 languages, the School of 5 comic book has reached over 300 million people worldwide.

Face washing to combat trachoma

Face washing can prevent the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness: trachoma. Globally, 190 million people are at risk7 and the disease is endemic in parts of Africa.

To prevent and control trachoma, one of the World Health Organization’s recommended strategies is face and handwashing with soap.

Aiming to impact trachoma, we partnered with international NGO Sightsavers, and have adapted our schools handwashing programme to include face washing in order to address this issue. Our programme with Sightsavers in Kenya reached nearly 100,000 people by the end of 2017, and we are expanding to other countries such as Ethiopia and Zambia.

Our Lifesaver Volunteer programme

Begun in 2014, our Lifebuoy Lifesaver Volunteer Programme harnesses the energy and enthusiasm of teenagers and college students, helping them make a difference in their communities through teaching the importance of handwashing with soap. Through colleges and youth networks, we’ve mobilised more than 150,000 Lifesaver Volunteers to run Lifebuoy’s School of 5 programme in schools.

Now running in five countries, it’s also expanding through organisations such as the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) and AIESEC, the global youth-led non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Heroes for change

In Kenya students are being recruited as agents for social change in a new volunteer programme launched in 2017. The ‘Heroes for Change’ programme is a volunteer-led model, designed to change handwashing behaviours among children and mothers. Led by Unilever in partnership with Amref Health Africa, the UN Population Fund, Sightsavers and the Standard Media Group, the programme has identified university students as an untapped force for good, as they’re known in their communities and so ideally placed to help activate change.

Student volunteers from five universities train over a six-month period to work towards improving health and well-being in their home communities. The training covers Unilever’s best-known change programmes from Lifebuoy, Blue Band and Pepsodent – and the ultimate goal is to reach 10 million Kenyans by 2020.

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Kids washing their hands

Kids helping kids to teach good handwashing habits

By teaching children early about the importance of handwashing, we can help them make healthy habits part of their routine for life and also reach their families. Kids have a great thirst for knowledge. They develop much of their behaviour during their primary school years and love sharing what they learn.

Since 2010, we’ve trained almost three million students across Indonesia in partnership with the Indonesian government, teaching them about the importance of handwashing with soap. These ‘Little Doctors’ have in turn reached over 15 million people, teaching them about handwashing and health.

Our programmes are led by the ‘Little Doctors’ in primary schools, ‘Health Ambassadors’ in high schools, nurses and female health workers in the community, forming a critical part of the Indonesian government school and community health programmes. This movement reached over 1.5 million students in 2017 alone.

Given the success of this model, in 2017, through a partnership with World Association of Girl Guides and Scouts (WAGGGS) in India, more than 1,200 girl guides and scouts have become handwashing heroes by promoting this lifesaving habit within their local communities. In total WAGGGS reached 3.1 million children and their families through an adapted version of Lifebuoy’s School of Five.

Helping mums protect precious newborns

Over 40% of deaths under five occur within the first 28 days of a child’s life. Every year, 2.9 million newborn babies die – over a third of them from infections. And around 41%8 of these deaths could be prevented just by helping new mums and midwives change their handwashing behaviour.

To help tackle this issue, we teach handwashing habits at neonatal clinics and through home visits to new mothers. Since 2011, we’ve reached more than 20 million mothers across Asia and Africa. Our largest programmes in Indonesia and Vietnam are run in partnership with government enabling health workers and the Women’s Union to teach mothers about handwashing with soap.

Powerful storytelling through Lifebuoy’s Help A Child Reach 5 campaign

Lifebuoy’s Help a Child Reach 5 campaign uses films to emphasise the importance of handwashing with soap in the month after birth. The films bring to life the aspirations that two mums, Sangrahi in India and Eunice in Kenya, have for their unborn children. Sangrahi’s film “Chamki” has won 35 industry awards.

Breaking Guinness World Records on Global Handwashing Day

We’re spreading the word to stop the spread of disease through handwashing with soap and breaking Guinness World Records along the way!

Each year on 15 October, over 200 million people take part in celebrating Global Handwashing Day (GHD) across more than 100 countries. Our Lifebuoy brand is a founding partner of the Global Handwashing Partnership9, which has supported GHD since it began in 2008.

In 2017 our #high5forhandwashing campaign achieved a Guinness World Record for creating the largest human image of a hand, following three other Guinness World Records in 2016. This campaign was led by our celebrity brand ambassadors across countries - including Indian Bollywood actor Kajol Devgan, Kenyan news anchor Janet Mbugua, Pakistan TV actors Ayeza Khan and Danish Taimoor, and Myanmar singer Chit Thu Wai. The campaign used the power of social media to raise awareness about the importance of handwashing with soap through a #high5forhandwashing selfie, engaging over 60 influencers globally with over 70,000 #high5forhandwashing selfies uploaded.

In addition to our digital reach, over 100,000 children across the world were taught handwashing by Lifebuoy teams on GHD itself.

Lifebuoy High Five for Handwashing

Working with partners to reach more people

It’s not just celebrities who can help us get the message across. Partnerships are the backbone of our handwashing behaviour change programmes and we work closely with governments and NGOs to enhance our reach and impact. We’re working to create transformational change – systems change – around Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). But we can’t do it alone, so we’re working in partnership with a number of organisations to create the change needed to address the global health challenges. The importance of partnerships is explicitly recognised in SDG 17: Revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.

The private sector can contribute towards cost-effective WASH solutions and support programmes that drive sustainable change at scale. For example, we teamed up with Oxfam to create a customised programme for use in emergency settings – the first of its kind – to promote handwashing with soap on key occasions (before preparing food, before eating, and after toilet use). The aim of the programme is to prevent the spread of diseases in emergency settings through reaching mothers in villages affected by natural disasters or in refugee camps.

At the centre of the programme is a story about a Mum and her magic hands, told through the eyes of a little girl. Mothers nurture their kids against all odds and their magic hands put their children to sleep, clean them, help them learn to walk and soothe away their pain – and washing those magic hands can prevent their children getting ill. The story is brought to life through a series of taught sessions, with activities and stickers to promote and reinforce the practice of handwashing with soap at home and in the community.

The programme was successful in improving handwashing, reaching 900 mothers across earthquake affected areas in Nepal. We’re now working with Oxfam to share our programme findings with the objective of offering the full suite of materials developed to all humanitarian-based organisations who aim to improve handwashing with soap in emergency affected areas. And in February 2017, we announced a groundbreaking three-year partnership between Lifebuoy and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Together we’re working to promote handwashing with soap and the benefits of vaccinations – two of the most successful and cost-effective ways to save children’s lives – to parents and healthcare workers in India.

We also get involved in existing initiatives like running creative handwashing initiatives in city slums and rural areas to support the Indian government’s quest for Swachh Aadat, Swachh Bharat (Clean Habits, Clean India).

1 UNICEF: https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-health/pneumonia/ ; https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-health/diarrhoeal-disease/

2 Cairncross, Sandy; Hunt, Caroline; Boisson, Sophie; Bostoen, Kristof; Curtis, Val; Fung, Isacc CH; and Schmidt, Wolf-Peter. Water, sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of diarrhoea - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845874/, International Journal of Epidemiology, 2010 39: i193-i205.

3 Nicholson, Julie A., et al. An investigation into the effects of handwashing intervention on health outcomes and school absence using a randomised control trial in Indian urban communities - http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tmi.12254/pdf, Journal of Tropical Medicine and International Health, 2014 19 no.3: 284-292.

4 Based on studies in Kenya and Ghana using smart sensor microchips to track behaviour, in Indonesia using sticker-diary methodology and in Bangladesh as part of DFID’s South Asia WASH Results Programme.

5https://mobiforge.com/research-analysis/global-mobile-statistics-2014-part-a-mobile-subscribers-handset-market-share-mobile-operators

6https://www.budde.com.au/Research/Bangladesh-Telecoms-Mobile-and-Broadband-Statistics-and-Analyses

7 World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs382/en/

8 Rhee, V; Mullany, LC; Khatry, SK; Katz, J; LeClerq, SC; Darmstadt, GL; Tielsch, JM. Maternal and birth attendant hand washing and neonatal mortality in southern Nepal. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 2008;162(7):603-608.

9 Previously known as the Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap.

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