Unilever Lifebuoy Case Study

The Unilever brand Lifebuoy is simultaneously helping create life-saving, healthy habits among 337 million people, while expanding its market share in over 60 countries.

Since 2010, Unilever’s hand soap brand Lifebuoy is simultaneously helping create life-saving, healthy habits among 337 million people, while expanding its market share in over 60 countries.

We may take handwashing with soap for granted as a basic form of hygiene linked to health, and had the good habit reinforced since primary school until it became second nature. Yet it is by no means a common, or commonly accessible, practice. Evidence from around the world indicates that poorer households, those located in rural areas, and those with less education, have less access to functional handwashing stations than their wealthier, urban and better educated counterparts.1 Families who are already more susceptible to death from diseases caused by poor hygiene are less equipped to protect themselves.2 And the impact extends beyond basic health to nutrition, economic security, education, and equality.

As part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever has set itself the goal of helping more than 1 billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, through programmes on handwashing, safe drinking water, oral health, and self-esteem. A programme run by its Lifebuoy brand, the world’s number one antibacterial soap sold in nearly 60 countries, aims to change the handwashing behaviour of a billion people by 2020 across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.3 This is one of the world’s largest hygiene promotion programmes.

Since 2010, 337 million people have been reached through Lifebuoy’s handwashing with soap programmes, developed using behavioural science and Unilever’s marketing expertise targeting school children and mothers.4 Diarrhoea is responsible for children missing a collective 272 million school days each year globally, and handwashing with soap has been found to help reduce school absenteeism due to diarrhoea, influenza and conjunctivitis by up to 40-50 percent.5 A clinical trial involving 2,000 families in Mumbai demonstrated the use of soap at key occasions increased significantly after the programmes were implemented. Children in the intervention group had 25% fewer incidences of diarrhoea, 15% fewer cases of acute respiratory infections, and 46% fewer eye infections than the control group. Both in terms of illness data and continued handwashing practice, results were extremely positive in showing sustained behaviour change. The clinical study was published in the Tropical Medicine and International Health Journal.

Furthermore, from an early age, handwashing plays an important role in basic nutrition. The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing cites it as a “critical determinant for achieving and maintaining good nutrition,” playing “an important part in preventing micronutrient deficiencies, stunting, wasting, and deaths.”6 Lifebuoy has developed a special approach for primary schools to make handwashing fun and engaging, especially with a focus on midday meals in countries like India, so millions of children in poor and rural communities get the benefits of better hygiene.

The scheme makes economic sense too, especially when you consider that handwashing programmes are highly cost effective compared to other interventions.7 And for Unilever, strengthening the habit of handwashing makes both commercial sense in the short-term, and bolsters the economic stability, as well as improves the health of the communities they serve in the long-term. Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever explains the importance of programs like this by saying, "Like Unilever, all businesses have the opportunity to be a force for good in the world. Through brands like Lifebuoy, we can inspire billions of consumers to take small everyday actions, such as handwashing with soap, to ensure a bright, more sustainable future for generations.”

Lifebuoy is one of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Brands, which were together responsible for almost half Unilever’s growth in 2015, when they grew 30 percent faster than the rest of the business. Indeed, programmes like Lifebuoy’s handwashing programme demonstrate that the unity of strategy and purpose between doing well, and doing good. 


1 MICS 2009-2013. Swapna Kumar, Handwashing behaviour in 20 countries: analysis of proxy measures of handwashing in Multiple Indicator Cluster surveys (MICS) and Demographic Health Surveys (DHS), 2009-11, UNC Water and Health Conference, 2013, Chapel Hill, NC. 
Ram P. Handwashing – it’s such an easy thing to do. University of North Carolina Water and Health Conference 2014. 


3 From internal company records.

4 Ibid.

5 Hutton, G. & Haller, L. (2004). Evaluation of the costs and benefits of water and sanitation improvements at the global level. Geneva: World Health Organization.

6 See http://globalhandwashing.org/about-handwashing/why-handwashing/economic-impact/.

7 For example, a US$3.35 investment in handwashing promotion is estimated to deliver the same amount of health benefits as a US$11 investment in latrine construction, a US$200 investment in household water supply, or an investment of many thousands of US dollars in immunizations. See http://globalhandwashing.org/about-handwashing/why-handwashing/economic-impact/.