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Beyond skin-deep: Creating inclusive products through inclusive R&D

By combining industry-leading understanding of melanin-rich skin with insights from dermatologists and consumers of colour, Unilever R&D’s Polycultural Centre of Excellence is developing products to address the unmet needs in the beauty, wellbeing and personal care space.


We want to ensure the people who help make our products reflect the diversity of the people we make them for. -Esi Eggleston Bracey, Unilever USA President and CEO of Personal Care, North America

State-of-the-art laboratories, a pilot plant to put new ideas to the test, and an in-house hair salon with full-time stylists working with around 50 participants a week trying new products are just a taste of what you’ll find at Unilever’s R&D campus in Trumbull, Connecticut.

Nearly 400 scientists work at the site, conducting global R&D for skincare and haircare products for brands including SheaMoisture, Vaseline, Dove and Melé.

Since 2018, it’s also been home to Unilever’s Polycultural Centre of Excellence (PCOE), comprising a team of 50+ scientists specialising in skincare, skin cleansing and haircare.

An impact that goes beyond skin-deep

“While we know there are more than 1.5 billion consumers with melanin-rich skin and/or textured hair around the world, we also understand they have unmet needs in the beauty, care and wellness space,” explains Peter Schrooyen, Unilever’s Head of Beauty & Wellbeing R&D North America.

The 2020 US census shows that Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans now account for 37.3% of the population. A report published by the FDA in the same year indicates that when it comes to research and clinical trials, there is still work to be done to ensure they represent the diverse demographics they serve.

Currently, Asian, Black/African American, and Hispanic/Latinx individuals make up 6%, 8% and 11% of the clinical trial populations, respectively. Comparatively, white individuals make up 75%.

The PCOE was created to help address these knowledge gaps, bringing together a team from different R&D functions including formulation, consumer technical insights, and science & technology to work as part of the ‘Melanin Science Movement’ (MSM), a programme designed by Unilever to further develop the understanding of melanin and how it affects the skin.

That work has seen the PCOE’s R&D teams reach out beyond the science: “to partnerships with diverse experts and suppliers to understand how cultural preferences, habits and practices intertwine to create the consumers’ beauty experience,” Schrooyen says.

Using insights to deliver on under-represented consumer needs

By combining the skills of people from a diverse mix of R&D functions and working alongside industry partners, the PCOE not only aims to deliver a more diverse and inclusive consumer product experience but also “develop products and get them to market with speed,” he adds.

One example is the discovery that melanin-rich skin has a different ceramide make-up, resulting in higher trans-epidermal water loss which means it tends to be drier than other skin types. It can also lead to an ashen appearance if it isn’t properly hydrated.

The Vaseline team used these findings to add ‘Ultra Hydrating Lipids’ to Vaseline’s Intensive Care range.Alongside this, they developed a body care range to illuminate melanin-rich skins. This saw the moisturising formula in both lotions improved to provide up to 90% more moisture, while still offering the even skin tone, glow and radiance consumers love. Vaseline will continue to innovate specifically for melanin-rich skin in the future.

Other Unilever brands have used this insight to add to their product ranges too.

For example, one in every two babies in the US are people of colour, and Baby Dove has created a range of products, specifically designed to gently care for a baby’s melanin-rich skin, including a hypoallergenic wash, cream and soothing oil.

Sharing the science to address misconceptions

During their research, the team also discovered many consumers aren’t aware of the damage sunlight/UV light can cause to melanin-rich skin.

To get the message on the importance of SPF usage out there, they worked with dermatologists of colour to create short social-first explainers.

In turn, the dermatologist community shared their insight that one of the barriers to the use of traditional SPF products is that they can sometimes leave a white film on darker skins.

Combining the science with this lifestyle insight helped the R&D team to create the award-winning skincare brand Melé with a built-in SPF that delivers both protection and aesthetics.

Adding insight and talent to our knowledge base

To move the dial and understand more about what polycultural consumers want, the PCOE team are further flexing the research part of their R&D.

Sharing key findings with the skincare community

An education programme is in place to share the PCOE’s findings with dermatologists and skincare specialists to fast-track further developments in more inclusive skincare.

Alongside this, the centre is running aprogramme of clinical and consumer researchwith thousands of people of colour to identify unique and common cross-category needs.

Building diversity into our supplier base and innovator funding

“The composition of the world is changing. Unilever’s global footprint gives us a significant opportunity to deliver for our polycultural consumers,” says Esi Eggleston Bracey, Unilever USA President and CEO of Personal Care, North America.

“As part of the Melanin Science Movement programme, in 2020, Unilever committed to double our funding dedicated to the research and creation of products for melanin-rich skin and textured hair; double our partnerships with diverse experts and suppliers; and provide funding for more than 50 research fellowships with innovators of colour,” says Schrooyen.

“And we’re on track to deliver,” he adds, “because we don’t just want to know and meet our consumers’ needs. We want to ensure the people who help make our products reflect the diversity of the people we make them for.”



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