Shreyas Kulkarni

What is pH, and why is it in the news lately courtesy Sebamed?

Ever since Sebamed’s campaign came out, this two-letter word has taken centre stage.

Sebamed, a leading German skincare company, has managed to do something that many wouldn’t have expected. It has taken direct shots at Hindustan Unilever’s soap brands Lux, Dove and Pears, and another soap brand Santoor. It was a case of comparative advertising last seen over a decade ago.

Through print and two digital ads conceptualised by The Womb, the doctor-prescribed soap brand illustrates how Lux’s pH level is the same as Rin, a dishwashing soap bar. And also how Dove’s pH level is seven, but its own is 5.5, which is ideal for sensitive skin.

Sebamed achieved what it intended to, i.e., garner eyeballs and build brand awareness. It also managed to achieve its supposed second aim, which was to generate conversations around pH scale and how it should be the deciding factor when it comes to buying a skin care soap.

But, what is this pH scale that many people are speaking about online? Simply put, it is a measure of how acidic or basic a substance is. The scale ranges from 0 to 14. Anything over 14 is basic, while anything below seven is acidic. Seven is considered neutral.

As per a paper published in the Indian Journal of Dermatology in 2014, the surface of the skin is slightly acidic, giving rise to the concept of the acid mantle. Studies have shown that the potential of hydrogen (pH) of the skin increases in proportion to the pH of the cleanser used.

The increase in pH level causes an increase in dehydrative effect, irritability and propionibacterium count. Changes in the pH level are reported to play a role in the pathogenesis of some skin diseases. Therefore, the use of skin cleansing agents with a pH of about 5.5 may be of relevance in the prevention and treatment of those diseases.

This is where Sebamed is touting itself as the better brand because it has stated that the pH of its soap bar is 5.5, which is ideal for the skin. It, however, isn’t the first time that a brand has brought forward the pH proposition to place itself over its rivals.

Credit: Applied Arts mag
Credit: Applied Arts mag
Credit: Applied Arts mag
Credit: Applied Arts mag

It was in 1991, when the Toronto offices of Ogilvy & Mather (now Ogilvy) created the famous ‘Litmus Test’ campaign and messaging such as ‘Do you really need the alkalinity of a household cleaner to wash your face?’ and 'Dove is mildest. Bar none’. quoted Janet Kestin, co-CCO at Ogilvy Toronto, who was part of the Dove ‘Litmus Test’ campaign, as saying, “The Dove team at Unilever has always had a really strong appetite to do things differently. Even back then, we did a lot of things that were not classic use of media.”

It was only in 2015-16 when the ‘Litmus Test’ reached India, courtesy HUL’s Dove taking on ITC’s Vivel soap. HUL, at several retailers, set up kiosks and asked customers to check Dove against other soaps (Vivel) using a litmus test. If the litmus paper turned blue, it meant the soap is harsh on your skin. The aim was to advance Dove’s proposition that it is pH neutral and nourishes your skin.

As yours truly writes this story, the Bombay High Court (on January 11, 2021) has directed Sebamed to restrain all its ads. But, why do we feel that Sebamed has already achieved what it wanted to?