Ashwini Gangal
Editor's Note

Secret superstars of Sebamed’s ads: the NABL, the pH scale, litmus paper

As Sebamed and HUL have it out in court, over the former’s recent ads, we deconstruct the jargon this battle is hinged on.

On January 10, 2021, German skincare brand Sebamed made a splash with a series of ads that compared its soap with existing brands like Lux, Dove and Pears, to illustrate its claim to a better pH.

There ensued a legal drama between Sebamed and Hindustan Unilever, parent of aforementioned soap brands. We’re yet to hear the last of this battle.

In the meanwhile, let’s pause and look at the line in tiny font that punctuates most of Sebamed’s controversial ads: ‘Creative visualization of reports based on tests conducted by an independent lab, accredited by NABL’.

What is the NABL?

NABL is an acronym for the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories. The NABL is one of the constituent boards of the QCI (Quality Council of India), which is a government body that functions in partnership with three industry bodies – Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (ASSOCHAM) – to ensure a national accreditation structure is in place.

The NABL provides voluntary accreditation services to: testing/calibration laboratories, medical laboratories, proficiency testing providers (that is, those who test unknown samples in a lab), and reference material producers (that is, those who provide material for R&D and testing purposes).

In simple terms, to accredit something is to declare that it is good enough to be given official approval. One can avail the NABL’s accreditation services for a fee. So, to sum up, the NABL gives different kinds of labs either a thumbs up or down. In case of the former, the lab can then claim to be an ‘NABL accredited lab’.

Back to Sebamed: according to the soap maker, the pH tests that it claims prove its superiority over Unilever’s soaps were done in one such lab.

The NABL routinely comes up in press releases and news reports about FMCG and F&B brands; for example, it was named extensively when Maggi announced its grand comeback, after the lead controversy around 2015.

Secret superstars of Sebamed’s ads: the NABL, the pH scale, litmus paper

What is pH?

In chemistry, pH stands for ‘potential or power of hydrogen’. pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, where 0 is the acidic end of the spectrum. The more hydrogen a solution has, the more acidic it is, and, counter intuitively, the lower it is on the pH scale. The less hydrogen a solution has, the less acidic it is, and the higher it is on the pH scale. This might seem a bit odd, as one may expect a high pH rank to reflect higher acidity. In reality, it is the other way around.

Sebamed claims to have a pH of 5.5. According to Sebamed’s ad, Dove has a pH of 7, and Lux and Pears have a pH of 10 each. So Sebamed is, indirectly, telling buyers that it is more acidic than Lux, Pears and Dove. Which sounds strange, doesn’t it? But the more acidic a soap, the lower it falls on the pH scale. So when Sebamed’s ad puts a bar of Rin detergent at pH 10, it is telling us that Rin is not acidic. Chemically speaking, the opposite of acidic is alkaline or basic.

Also, the closer a product is to our body’s natural state, the better it is for us. The pH of our skin is, usually, somewhere around 5. By advertising a pH of 5.5, Sebamed is telling people that it is more in sync with their skin’s natural state than its less acidic rivals are. Remember, pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, where 0 is the acidic end of the spectrum. Which means 7 is the neutral mid-point. If Sebamed is perched at 5.5, it means it falls on the acidic side of the scale. This also means, in its natural state, adult human skin is slightly acidic.

Grammatically, though, something doesn’t add up: if pH stands for ‘power of hydrogen’, then how is it that a product with more hydrogen in it (say, an acidic soap) gets a lower pH rank than a product with less hydrogen in it (say, an alkaline soap) does? But I’m just being pedantic. Besides, I am sure a chemistry expert or a dermatologist can explain it to me.

Secret superstars of Sebamed’s ads: the NABL, the pH scale, litmus paper

The Litmus Test

For now, I’m more preoccupied with the strips of yellow paper in Sebamed’s ads. We’ve seen them in the past in ads for Dove as well. This is not litmus paper. This yellow strip is called ‘universal pH paper’.

Litmus paper is usually purple in colour. When it comes in contact with a solution that’s acidic (pH of less than 4.5) it turns red. And blue, if the solution is alkaline (pH of more than 8.3). That’s why the strips of paper touching Lux, Pears and Rin are blue, in Sebamed’s controversial posters. That’s also why the strip touching Dove is not blue; the pH of Dove, as per Sebamed’s ad, is 7.

Though Indian advertising is no stranger to this strip of paper, it has never been as sexy as it is today. In our recent article about the Sebamed saga, an analyst said something to the tune of the yellow litmus paper being sexier than Liril’s signature green bikini. The most attractive weapon in the soap marketer’s arsenal today is science, not style. 2020 was about immunity and hygiene. 2021 belongs to purity and precision.

The most attractive weapon in the soap marketer’s arsenal today is science, not style. 2020 was about immunity and hygiene. 2021 belongs to purity and precision.

Few days ago, I wrote about the way honey brands, and authorities like the Centre for Science and Environment or CSE, made claims about the purity and impurity of honey, respectively, basis tests conducted in a certain “German Lab”. In the case of Sebamed, well, my tongue-in-cheek analysis may not work. It’s a German company, you see.

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