A paid-for Facebook post by Boots advertising Baby Dove wash and lotion, seen in August 2019, featured text that stated "Every baby is born with a unique microbiome, a living layer that protects its skin, nourish it with Baby Dove wash and lotion. Available at Boots". The post also included a video with voice-over that stated “Every baby is born with a unique microbiome. Nourish it with Baby Dove prebiotic moisturiser”. An image of parents with a newborn baby appeared with the on-screen text “Every baby is born with a unique microbiome”. This was followed by an image of the products accompanied by on-screen text that stated “Baby Dove gently nourishes with prebiotic moisturiser”. Further text stated “with prebiotic moisturiser” and “with 100% skin natural nutrients”.
IssueThe complainant challenged whether the claim that Baby Dove wash and lotion could "nourish" a baby's skin microbiome was misleading and could be substantiated.
Boots UK Ltd said Unilever UK Ltd would respond on their behalf. Unilever said that the post advertised a baby wash and baby lotion, the primary purpose of which was to clean and moisturise a baby’s skin and keep it in good condition. They said the claims did not state or imply that the products could be used with a view to making a medical diagnosis or could treat or prevent disease, including injury, ailment or adverse condition. Instead, the claims made highlighted that the products could help support and protect skin and its microbiome, an intrinsic part of the skin surface and component of the skin and keep it in good condition, which were both functions of cosmetic products as defined in the European Cosmetics Regulation ((EC) No. 1223/2009).
The ad was designed to highlight that skin had a unique microbiome which helped to protect it, and that Baby Dove head to toe wash and lotion could help care for the skin, which included the microbiome. Unilever said the claim “to nourish” was widely used in cosmetics. For example, in skin care and skin cleansing, where a moisturising product contained nourishing ingredients such as lipids, those ingredients helped to support skin function by moisturisation, which help to maintain skin in good condition. In hair care, the word “nourish” was used to describe the appearance and manageability of the hair after use of the product. The average consumer was therefore likely to understand the word “nourish” in the cosmetic sphere to mean to provide with the care and support that was needed to keep in good condition. Therefore their likely take-away from the ad would be that the products supported and cared for and kept the skin and its microbiome in good condition.
They stated that the cleanser was intended to respect the microbiome, while the lotion nourished it, and that this was reflected in their test results. Unilever said that the role of the skin microbiome in protecting the skin and keeping it in good condition had been researched for over 16 years. Microbiome referred to the community of microorganisms that shared a human’s body space. A range of internal and external factors could affect the composition of the population of resident microbes, resulting in a microbiome that was unique to each person.
Skin microbiome formed a key part of the skin barrier, fulfilling an essential role in maintaining healthy skin through the production of fatty acids and maintenance of pH. Disruptions in the balance of the microbiome had been associated with skin that was not in good condition. Supporting the microbial population by providing a supportive environment for commensal “good” bacteria was a way to maintain balance in the skin microbiome and keep skin in good condition. Unilever provided copies of seven in-house tests and details of three further tests. They also provided a statement from an expert consultant.
The post stated “Every baby is born with a unique microbiome, a living layer that protects its skin, nourish it with Baby Dove wash and lotion”, while the embedded video also included the claims “nourish it with Baby Dove prebiotic moisturiser” and “Baby Dove gently nourishes with prebiotic moisturiser”. The first two of these claims referred specifically to the microbiome, rather than the skin more generally, as being “nourished” by the products, and the third referred to “nourishing” in a more general sense.
The ASA noted that the products were a body wash and lotion; product types that consumers were likely to associate with having the function of cleansing and/or moisturising or keeping the skin in good condition. In that context we considered that consumers were likely to understand that the claim “Every baby is born with a unique microbiome, a living layer that protects its skin, nourish it with Baby Dove wash and lotion” to mean that the products had the properties of cleansing or moisturising skin, but that they also had specific additional protective benefits specifically stemming from their effect on the skin microbiome.
We considered that consumers would understand that a product that was said to “nourish” the “living layer that protects the skin” would itself have a role in protecting the skin, by helping to keep the microbiome in an optimum state to protect the skin. The use of the word “prebiotic” further reinforced the impression that the products offered a unique benefit relating specifically to their impact on the skin microbiome, and beyond that of a standard moisturiser or cleanser.
We considered that the ad made breakthrough claims that would require a high level of evidence to substantiate them. In order to support the claims as consumers were likely to understand them, we expected to see well-designed clinical testing, conducted on humans, which demonstrated that the products would have a protective effect on the skin directly as a result of their impact on the skin microbiome. We took expert advice on the evidence submitted by Unilever, the specific details of which they requested we treat as confidential.
We first assessed the six in vitro tests. While we acknowledged that in vitro tests could be useful for research, they could not always be extrapolated to suggest any effects seen would be identical or even similar in vivo. Those studies assessed the effects of glycerol (an ingredient in the products) on the growth of two species of bacteria, and the effects of metabolites produced by those bacteria in the presence of glycerol. Unilever described “Species A” as a good and “Species B” as a bad species of bacteria. One of the tests also looked at the effect of a metabolite on a second species of “bad” bacteria. We understood that the microbiome was highly complex and, while the evidence gave a sense of some of the species of bacteria and how they might be influenced by glycerol, we did not consider that the evidence showed that the species of bacteria cited in those studies could always be easily categorised as “good” and “bad”, or that the relationship between them and any positive or negative outcomes was causal.
We also had concerns about the extent, if any, to which tests on specific species of bacteria could legitimately be extrapolated to the whole microbiome. We understood, however, that the microbiome was the subject of ongoing research which might provide more clarity on some of those questions in future. We understood that a product containing glycerol could be expected to provide moisturising benefits to the skin. However, we had not seen any evidence that glycerol would have an effect on the skin microbiome that would lead to a protective benefit on babies’ skin.
Notwithstanding the details of the individual in vitro studies discussed above, we considered that they were insufficient to support the claims as consumers were likely to understand them: that the advertised product would have a protective benefit for the skin; or indeed, that it would have any effect on the condition of the skin, whether positive or negative. Unilever submitted details of four in vivo studies. The first was conducted on adult human skin and involved the application of different concentrations of glycerol to the forearm for two days and the changes in lactic acid on the skin was measured. The study reported that lactic acid levels increased in a dose-dependent manner. The experiment tested the effect of a single ingredient in the products, rather than the products themselves, and did not examine the effect of glycerol on microorganisms on the skin of human subjects. The sample size was very small. Furthermore, it was not tested on the group for which the product was intended (i.e., babies) and did not measure effects for longer than three days. We considered that the relevance of the findings supporting the claims made in the ad was limited.
Another study examined the effect of a lotion containing glycerol on adult subjects with dry skin. It reported a significant increase in the “good” bacteria species and that there was no increase in “bad” bacteria species, compared to the control group. A further study on adult female subjects with dry skin assessed the effect of cleansing products on endpoints including the skin microbiome. We understood that dry adult skin was not an acceptable model for evaluating the product’s effect on the microbiome of normal, non-dry baby skin. A two-week parallel-design study of healthy infants evaluated the effects of washing with Baby Dove cleanser versus water alone. It reported no significant impact of the product on the skin microbiome. The subjects were the most relevant to the intended target audience of the products, compared to those used in the other in vivo tests. However, no endpoints relating to actual benefits for skin condition were presented.
We considered that the body of evidence submitted by Unilever was insufficient to substantiate the claims in the ad as consumers were likely to understand them, namely that the products would have a protective effect on babies’ skin directly as a result of their impact on the skin microbiome. We concluded that the ad was misleading and breached the Code.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.
Objective claims must be backed by evidence, if relevant consisting of trials conducted on people. Substantiation will be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge.
Medicinal or medical claims and indications may be made for a medicinal product that is licensed by the MHRA, VMD or under the auspices of the EMA, or for a CE-marked medical device. A medicinal claim is a claim that a product or its constituent(s) can be used with a view to making a medical diagnosis or can treat or prevent disease, including an injury, ailment or adverse condition, whether of body or mind, in human beings.
Secondary medicinal claims made for cosmetic products as defined in the appropriate European legislation must be backed by evidence. These are limited to any preventative action of the product and may not include claims to treat disease. (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told Unilever UK Ltd and Boots UK Ltd to ensure that they did not state or imply that their products had a beneficial, protective effect on the skin specifically as a result of their impact on the skin microbiome, unless they held sufficient evidence to demonstrate that was the case.