Most cleaning products contain surfactants. These are the compounds that create foam and enable the product to work: to break down oil, grease and soil to remove it from countertops, clothing and skin.
However, these surfactants are typically made from petrochemicals – a non-renewable resource.
We wanted to find an alternative that could not only wash dishes just as well as our best-performing products, but that is also made from renewable ingredients that are kinder to the planet.
And when you’re on the lookout for a solution offering such ‘natural’ characteristics, where better to look than nature itself.
Searching for the perfect combination
Microbes, plants and fungi all produce molecules with surfactant-like behaviour. Unilever Home Care has been exploring these ‘biosurfactants’ in partnership with Evonik, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.
What we discovered is that some micro-organisms can convert sugar into surfactants – in a similar way that yeast in beer breaks down sugar to make ethanol – resulting in the degreasing performance our consumers require, while ensuring excellent foaming and dirt removal qualities.
Using the latest advances in biotechnology, we can mirror the same process that happens in nature, but recreate it at a bigger scale by feeding bacteria with refined sugar, or even better, waste from the corn and maize industry.
The result of this breakthrough is Rhamnolipid, a type of surfactant found in nature which works in cleaning surfaces.
It’s a 100% renewable and 100% biodegradable ingredient, which delivers superior cleaning performance.
It works better in hard water areas. Typically, when cleaning products are used with hard water, their performance tends to degrade so you need to use more of them to get the same results.
Importantly, we have dermatologically tested it against irritation and allergies, and it’s also ultra-mild on skin, which sets it apart from other surfactant alternatives.
Peter ter Kulve, President of Unilever's Home Care business, says: “Our R&D team has been aware of Rhamnolipid for some years, but the technology and the science weren’t at a point where we were able to scale it. So it remained an invention in a lab, until now. That’s why we are so delighted to be partnering with Evonik. Together, our teams have worked hard to deliver a sustainable and safe product with even better performance.”
First stop, Chile
This innovative ingredient was introduced to the market this summer in our Quix dishwashing liquid in Chile – the first time it has been used in a cleaning product anywhere in the world.
This is an ideal test market because we know, through research, that consumers there care about their environment and natural resources. And while they are looking for natural cleaning products, they are not willing to compromise on performance.
Dr Hans Henning Wenk, Vice President of R&D at Evonik, says: “This is a key milestone and an important step in our journey to finding more sustainable solutions. It’s the first innovation of its kind to launch in household cleaning. It has the potential to fundamentally transform the way we produce cleaning ingredients and positively influence countless other industries going forward.”
Unilever is committed to scaling the innovation further, as well as exploring new technologies and innovations which offer renewable ingredients for our cleaning and laundry products.