Updated on 03.18.10

The Cost of Overuse

Trent Hamm

All of us use a lot of household products every day. Soap. Shampoo. Conditioner. Toothpaste. Hand soap. Dishwashing detergent. Laundry detergent. The list goes on and on.

Many of these items are used so routinely that we don’t even step back and think about them. We squirt some toothpaste on our toothbrush. We use a big gulp of mouthwash. We dump in laundry detergent up to the line.

Almost every time, though, we use way more of this stuff than we need.

Take toothpaste, for example. If you actually read their suggestion on how much toothpaste to use, it’s substantially less than the amount you probably use. It’s less than the amount I’ve always used, and I use far less than other people I know.

If you go a step beyond that, the back of the package is going to suggest using more than you actually need. Why? If you use substantially more than you need to get the job done, you’ll get the job done and run out of the stuff faster, sending you back to the store to buy more and to cause the company more profit.

I decided to really look at the amounts I was using in my own life and came up with some interesting results on several different things.

Soap I use liquid soap in the shower. I usually squeeze out a pretty big glob onto my washcloth and wash away, not thinking about it. However, if you read the back of pretty much any bottle, they encourage you to use a “small amount” (or some other vague amount). So I experimented a bit. I put just a tiny dot of soap on the wash cloth, about the smallest dot I could make. I lathered it around for a bit and it made a surprisingly large amount of suds. Two dots made as much lather as I would make from a huge squirt. In fact, I found that if I used one of those hand soap dispensers, a single squeeze from that dispenser gave me plenty of body soap for the shower. Using 80% less soap had the exact same results.

Toothpaste I used to squirt a line of toothpaste from one end of the bristles to the other. Reading the back of the tube, they suggest a much smaller amount than that. So I tried different amounts. Eventually, I found the perfect balance for me – an almost circular dot on the toothbrush. This resulted in pretty much the same amount of foam in my mouth (with a lot less over-the-top minty flavor!). Using 66% less toothpaste had the exact same results.

Mouthwash I would usually just pour myself a good mouth full in the bottom of a cup, rinse it around in my mouth for a minute, and spit. However, I was using far too much of it. Using about half as much got the same “burning” effect (yes, I use Listerine). Using 50% less mouthwash had the exact same results.

Dishwashing detergent My dishwasher has two different spots for detergent. Instead of filling up both slots with detergent, I tried filling up just one. I couldn’t notice a difference. What about filling up one slot about halfway? This didn’t quite cut it – it seemed to not work as well. I’ve actually been filling up both slots about halfway now. Using 50% less dishwashing detergent had the exact same results.

Shampoo and conditioner I used to just fill up my palm with shampoo, scrub it deeply into my hair, and rinse. However, my hair is really short. It turns out that just the tiniest dot does the trick – a huge reduction in the amount of shampoo I use. The same is true with conditioner. I’m going to adopt the same “squirt bottle” tactic I use with the soap. Using approximately 85% less shampoo and conditioner had the exact same results.

In fact, the only household product I tried that didn’t succeed just as well without a significant reduction was dental floss. A shorter strand just didn’t cut it.

Each one of these things changed nothing with my quality of life. I just found that if I used a little less up front, I didn’t miss it at all. This means more uses per container of household product – and that means that each container lasts longer.

And that, of course, means money saved without changing a thing about my life.

That’s a win, my friends.

Take a look at how much of this stuff you use. Don’t cut it below what you’re comfortable with, but give it a shot with a bit less. Don’t squirt quite as much shampoo onto your hands in the shower. Don’t put quite as much detergent into the wash. Quite often, trimming a little bit from what you use won’t make any noticeable difference except that you’ll be buying that item a lot less frequently without any change in the way you do things. That means money in your pocket.

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  1. Shannon says:

    Yup, this should be enough to pay off the pesky mortgage 10 years early.

  2. Molly says:

    I’d also recommed taking a bit at a time – if you need more toothpaste after one squirt and half your teeth, THEN add more.

  3. Honey says:

    I try to use the minimum amount of shampoo/conditioner necessary for my hair to feel clean and soft…but that’s because 1 8oz container of shampoo and 1 8oz container of conditioner costs like $90. The cheapie stuff just doesn’t work for me!

  4. KC says:

    Whenever I wash my hands (which is about once and hour) I’ve noticed that all I need is about a quarter of a skirt of liquid hand soap. It gives me plenty of suds assuming I’m not washing a lot of oil, grease or dirt off my hands. I also sparingly use hand lotion. I like the good stuff (Nutrogena, Gold Bond Ultimate). Again it doesn’t take much of a skirt to get what I need assuming I’m not doing anything too harsh to my hands.

  5. Tamara says:

    I already do most of these things, I am kind of surprised you didn’t actually.

    I use about a dime sized squirt of shampoo, then use another dime if I feel my hair isn’t clean. Same with conditioner. When I was young my mom used to dilute shampoo about 4-1 with water so that we didn’t use too much. she still does that with her own shampoo.

    I put the toothpaste tube right on my tooth brush so the line is very thin as it comes out.

    I have always filled both dishwasher soap spots half full.

  6. ~M says:

    I find the Aviva dispensers (available at Amazon and Bed Bath & Beyond) to be great for getting a precise and small amount of products you use in the shower: shampoo, conditioner (though this may clog it, depending), face soap, body soap, etc. Also, one easy way to reduce the amount of shampoo and conditioner is to not wash your hair everyday – especially if you have curly hair (and use an sls-free shampoo). I use a round electric toothbrush and a round dot of toothpaste and my dentist says my teeth are great (and that generally, electric toothbrushes clean superiorly). For dishwasher detergent, I use a tablet. I measure liquid laundry detergent in a kiddie medicine measuring cup.

    On a somewhat related note, I’ve noticed that if I use a sharper cheddar, I can get away with using less cheese than if I use mild cheddar.

  7. Kat says:

    Shannon, Trent wasn’t claiming this would save you LARGE amounts, but as it doesn’t alter his quality of life at all, why not save a few hundred dollars? And, if you buy the “good stuff” or, in Honey’s case, the “great stuff,” this would shave years off your mortgage!

  8. almost there says:

    Wow, kinda letdown on this post. I expected some more insight on cutting back on TP. :)

  9. jgonzales says:

    I recently read The Complete Tightwad Gazette and Amy Dacygyzn (sp?) suggested brushing for 5 minutes with just water. I tried it one night (when I have more time) and found it does work just as well! I still use toothpaste in the AM, but I’m saving quite a bit by not using it at night. My teeth feel just as clean and no complaints from the dentist.

  10. Someone says:

    Note that one of the reasons small amounts of toothpaste, liquid soap and standard shampoo extend so well is that they contain sodium lauryl sulfate.

    There is currently some concern that SLS is an irritant and/or something worse, so many people are seeking out alternatives to SLS-containing bath and beauty products.

    In any case, yes, there’s no question that there’s some encouragement to use up products faster than we really need to, and I feel the same way about the purpose of a lot of expiration dates. (Obviously one needs to be smart and savvy about which ones make sense and which are a bit silly.)

  11. Kai says:

    Something like this is also valuable just as a general mindset check – instead of using blindly, you stop and consider ‘how much is *enough*?’ – and that’s a good way to be thinking about the big things in life too.

  12. beth says:

    This is one of the reasons why, as soon as there is a little space in the top of the liquid dishsoap, laundry soap, or body wash bottles, I top it off with water and gently mix it in. No one in the house ever notices that it’s a little thinner, and it has no effect on the washing. I still nag them to use about half what they think they need, so with ~1/4 dilution plus a smaller amount, it lasts quite a bit longer.

  13. cv says:

    Getting post ideas from the New York Times? They had an article a couple of days ago on this topic that was all over the blogs I read. I’d link to it, but I think that causes problems with moderation sometimes.

    The main point of that article is that using too much detergent in your dishwasher or washing machine can gum up the machine or leave residue on your clothes.

  14. Stella says:

    I’ve been cutting back on toothpaste as well. Like you, I used to squeeze a stripe onto the brush from end to end. I realize that just a dab–the size of a small pea–does the trick. Also trying to use less laundry detergent. Never realized it could actually damage the washing machine!

  15. Ginger says:

    Honestly have you every added up how much you spent on bathroom stuff? We spend about $150/year, even if you cut 1/8 off that is over $15, but if you saved that $15 for 30 years and retired it would give an additional $450 not even accounting for the additional money from investing it. More likely you would have over $1000. Not bad for something that does not change the quality of your life.

  16. Courtney says:

    Someone’s post (#10) makes a great point – SLS *is* an irritant and it very much affects me (YMMV). It gives me dandruff and mouth sores (from shampoo and toothpaste/mouthwash, respectively). I use Burt’s Bees shampoos and Sensodyne toothpaste, which are both SLS-free. The shampoo definitely does not lather as much as regular brands so I do have to use a bit more than I would normally. But it vastly improves my quality of life.

  17. Joanna says:

    Trent, I SO missed the calculation of exactly how much these steps would save. And I’m not being facetious here. I really would’ve enjoyed seeing the #s. :-)

  18. JuliB says:

    Once I started washing my hair every other day (occasionally every 3rd day – I wear it up then), I realized that I was saving at least 50% on shampoo and conditioner! That can really add up, at least in terms of having to buy it less frequently.

  19. Michelle says:

    My dental hygienist recommended not using toothpaste. She said the patients that brush with just a damp toothbrush had less plaque buildup and the ones that brush with a dry toothbrush had the least plaque buildup of all. She said the foaming actually prevents the bristles from getting to the plaque. So it’s not only a good idea cost-wise but health-wise.

    And don’t forget to brush your tongue and gums!

  20. rosa rugosa says:

    We’ve been experimenting with the “using a little less” thing with good results. I like the way Amy put in in the Tightwad Gazette, to try decreasing until the amount is not satisfactory, then increase to the point where it is satisfactory. I grant the point that this will never make me wealthy, but why use a whole lot more of anything than I really need? Even if I only save $20.00 a year, I could buy a nice bottle of wine with that. And if I’m using enough of whatever to get satisfactory results, then I’m not depriving myself in any way.

  21. Kara says:

    Don’t forget the environmental impact.. less junk in the land fills.. I alternate “good” shampoo with “regular” shampoo.. and wait till it is %50 off..

  22. asrai says:

    Go no poo (I hate that term) saves even more n$$ and on the environment. Take an 2 old bottles and fill one with water and 1-2 TBSP baking soda per cup of water and one with a simialar dilution of vinegar and water. Use the baking soda mix first scrub like shampoo and then use the vinegar all over to neutralize the soda and it also washes the oils from your scalp. After 2 years my hair NEVER feels oily, I use twice or three times a week. When I started I had long thick hair and it needed it every other day. Now that its short I can get away with longer between.

    Using bar soap for hand washing/body washing cuts down on waste. As long as your kids don’t drop it in the tub and it melts away. Unless you spend several minutes with the soap in your hands, you cannot use too much. I buy half a dozen soap less than once a year for our family of 3.

  23. anna says:

    @ Joanna, the $$$$ saving would depend extremely on how much your product costs. Take your shampoo cost X the percentage you aren’t using & that is your savings. Some people like Honey will save LOTS while people like me won’t save much. I’ve recently been following a blog about coupons and just purchased a ton of health/personal products at CVS for just pennies combining sales, coupons and rewards. I’ve turned it into a game, showing my boyfriend what I can buy for soo cheap. This weeks deal was 10 deodorants for 25 cents each or $2.50 for a years supply! Using less deodorant daily won’t really add up to much for me but for someone using a pricy high quality brand might save $3 or 4 a month using less product.

  24. greg says:

    I found that using a small towel after the shower gets me and my hair just as dry in about the same time as the big bath towel – and my washing machine is grateful for having less work.

  25. Laura says:

    Seems to me the point of this is the mindset of using only what one needs. While we won’t become independently wealthy on what we save on shampoo, soap, toothpaste, etc., chances are we will be equally mindful of the other things in our lives. Lowering the thermostat, driving carefully, etc., can certainly add up to significant savings.

  26. graytham says:

    Easy trick for using less liquid soap from a pump- tie a rubber band around the “stem” of the dispenser so that when you depress the pump, it won’t go down as far, and will dispense less (but still enough) soap.

  27. de Ruiter says:

    Good post! Uwing less for the same result is better for the environment because less of this gunk is put into the water supply. Also over the course of a year you’ll buy less so you’ll generate less plastic container waste. Using less is good for the pocketbook, the water supply and the waste stream. Win/win/win! Many of these products are produced overseas, so you do a little bit to correct the balance of trade too.

  28. When I buy dish liquid, instead of slicing the whole top off of the little thing where the opening is, I just put a small pinprick in there. A very tiny amount comes out, and I still get the same results. I have probably used this last container of it for three times as long as in the past.

  29. Brandon says:

    I was thinking about this post this morning while flossing and I think if you are a trust frugalista (frugalisto?), then the way to save on floss costs would probably be paradoxically to pull out a long strand from the container.

    The trick though would be to not cut it from the box before use. See, since you have basically three parts to floss:
    1. The part around your left finger.
    2. The part that actually flosses your teeth.
    3. The part around the right finger.

    If you wrapped around one finger the minimum amount, stretched it out for the minimal width you needed for #2 and then wrapped around your other finger without cutting it, then after the fact you could cut it so that it is cut at the edge of area 2 instead of area 3. As a ersult, you would reuse area 3 as the area 1 next time and save floss!

    I bet this could save a nickel a year for the average flosser!

    Incidentally, I don’t think most of these tips are going to save good money, but they could have a lot of subtle effects in the fact you need to shop for these products less often (meaning you can be pickier about sales and such and use less gas). It is also more sustainable without much hassle which is always a good thing.

    Something you didn’t mention in depth (only passing) was laundry detergent. I read an article elsewhere this week talking about excess laundry detergent. Supposedly, a test for if you are using too much is to pop a towel that you have washed but not used since washing into the washer and turn it on without suds. If the water gets suddy on it’s own, you likely are using too much. Honestly, thinking about my clothes being that full of detergent is pretty gross.

  30. Jane says:

    @ Anna
    I also did the deal shopping for a while, but I realized that I had this huge stockpile that would take me years to get through. How do you use 10 deodorants a year? I probably go through 2 max, so when I found deodorant for free with coupons, the thought of buying ten would never cross my mind. All the “deals” sites I go to show these women buying tons of toiletries every month. My question is – do they have a huge family or are they donating things? Or are they using obscene amounts of shower gel just because they got it for free? I really don’t get it. We go through so little of this stuff that once I did the “deals” for a month or two, I couldn’t justify doing it any more. Once in a while when we run out of things, I’ll clip coupons again, but seriously, I’m confused by the stockpiling unless someone has a huge family.

  31. Caroline says:

    I’m glad you said something b/c I’ve got a pet peeve against using too many household and personal care products (and anything, I guess haha). And why do balding men always seem to use the most shampoo? (Not implying you’re going bald – I have no idea if you are – just noticed that it happens.)

    Btw – the lather isn’t what gets you clean, they just put that ingredient in there to make you feel better.

    You know, I actually wish that stuff like lip gloss, and makeup in general, would come in smaller containers b/c I can never use enough of it by the time you should replace it. I don’t even replace it strictly when they say to, but usually wait double time.

    About the funny comment on using less TP – I kept wondering how people like Sheryl Crow were claiming to use only 1 square, when I realized they must be using really REALLY nice tp compared to the cheap stuff. I might upgrade my tp so I can use less squares too :P

    Will never use bar soap over liquid soap – the ingredients that hold the bar in bar-form leave a residue on skin.

  32. Zoranian says:

    In reply to the TP comments. I use Charmin ultrastrong. It is more expensive (I buy the double rolls when they are sale for about $0.40-$0.50 a roll). But it takes FOREVER to use up the TP. I usually use two squares unless it’s a really sticky situation ;) I bought 9 rolls at the grocery store last time because they were on sale, but realized I still had some left from the 12 roll package I bought over 4 months ago.

    Compared to at work, with el-cheapo regular rolls of toilet paper, where I use about a good size handful for even the smallest jobs. Not a plug for Charmin, but if you find a brand that YOU like that works well for your situation, feel free to buy premium. A roll generally lasts 2 weeks or so in my house (except when my in-laws came because they stole my TP AND my paper towels to DRY THEIR HANDS). I keep clean hand towels right next to the sink… Eh well.

  33. getagrip says:

    With respect to brushing without toothpaste, I wouldn’t rely on one individual’s call, hygenist or not. I’ve seen results of a science fair project which provided the exact opposite results. People brushed their teeth with various toothpastes and used brushing without toothpaste as a control. In all cases toothpaste provided benefit in helping to clean the teeth. Without controls there could be plenty of reasonable explainations for the results the hygenist is seeing, particularly if she hasn’t honestly recorded anything and is going by the positive “hits” she remembers versus actually polling all her patients and doing a real comparison since those who “look good” and don’t use toothpaste are likely to brag while those who “look good” and do use toothpaste or those who “look bad” and don’t use toothpaste probably don’t say anything.

  34. Kristen says:

    I was surprised by Trent’s comment that he hasn’t found a way to cut back on dental floss. I floss almost every day, but I still manage to make a spool of floss last about 6 months (and I’m talking about the freebie spool of floss that my dentist gives me each time.) How? Cut about 6-8 inches of floss and tie it in a circle. You’ll probably have to double knot it if you are using waxed, but it is SO much easier to floss this way than with the ends tied around your fingers. A dentist showed me one time when I was a kid, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I never have to buy floss.

  35. This isn’t just about saving money, it’s about consuming and how we over consume needlessly.
    I have a huge head of thick hair that I recently grew out to my shoulders. I’ve been thinking of cutting it short again…not for style reasons….because I use so much less shampoo and conditioner when it is short!

  36. I remember Amy Dacyczyn making this point a long time ago, and it’s been my practice ever since. Getting the kids to do it is another story, however.

  37. et says:

    @#34 – Kristen – Thanks for the idea about the dental floss! My teeth are very crowded & flossing is difficult – having a circle makes it a lot easier to manage.

    @#31 – I agree – the lather isn’t what’s cleaning your hair or dishes, so don’t judge how much to use by the amount of suds you’ve got, but by how well it’s cleaning.

    Another side to this is to not buy more shampoo before you’re’ almost out of the current bottle. I’ve been in homes of friends where you can barely get in the shower or tub for all the different bottles of stuff.

  38. I would also consider frequency in this. I used to shower every single day no matter what and now I do every other or every third day.

    Also I no longer even use shampoo because Caroline is right…..the lather is just for our own comfort as is the scent, and whatever they use to make it look like it does. I now use water and baking soda and it works so much better and I have the peace of mind that not only am I treating my scalp with no crazy chemicals but I’m also saving ALOT of money.

  39. Jeannette says:

    Aside from Trent’s relevant ideas, which we have been doing for a long while, we also dilute a lot of products we use (shampoo, liquid soap, dishwashing liquid, etc.).

    We dilute anywhere from about one-third to one-half of a liquid product by adding water and mixing.

    We’ve seen no change to the quality of the product and its performance. What we’ve seen is a 1/3rd to 1/2 reduction in our costs for said items.

    I don’t know if this works on really cheap products, but on the discounted brand names we use, we’re really pleased. (And yes, we still save a lot more than buying two of some less-expensive stuff.)

    In fact, the per-use cost goes way, way down with this method, above what you’d get for any dollar-store item.

  40. Des says:


    A study published in the June 2007 Journal of Periodontology showed that brushing with toothpaste reduced plaque by 50%, but brushing without toothpaste reduced it by 56%. Even without the study, though,I would take a professional hygienists word over an entry in a science fair.

  41. reulte says:

    To make sure my boy brushes thoroughly, I hand him a toothbrush while he’s watching TV to ‘dry-brush’. I figure that 30 minutes of cartoons has him brush for at leash 5 of those minutes.

    Part of the reason that toothpaste suggests only a ‘pea-size’ amount is that some of the ingredients are toxic.

  42. elderly librarian says:

    This reminds me of diluting fruit juices too. They are much too sweet and I don’t like the ones with artificial sweeteners. I like to drink water with a little “flavoring” in it, so I start pouring filtered water in my cranberry juice bottle.

  43. mellen says:

    Like Courtney, I’ve cut sodium lauryl sulfate out of my routine and guess what? my itchy, flaky scalp is no longer itchy and flaky – I’m using Burt’s Bees and California Baby products. Also, I forget who called Neutrogena “the good stuff” in terms of hand lotion but it is far from it, it contains petro chemicals (last I checked). Burt’s Bees, Origins, California Baby and a few others don’t use SLS, petro chemicals (mineral oil, petrolatum), propylene glycol (this is the main ingedient in antifreeze, it’s supposedly safe in small doses but I’m not eating it or putting it on my skin) or parabens (which are banned in Europe from personal care products). Just some things to think about…

  44. partgypsy says:

    One thing I do to keep keep mindful is that all the products you use that wash off go into the water and into the streams and water supply. Ever see oily or soapy film on creeks or water runoff? One way or another we put that there. That’s where animals live. We are trying to substitute less toxic cleaning supplies for the same reason.

  45. Sandy says:

    Nobody’s mentioned Lush products…I’ve been buying their wonderful solid shampoos for years now, and they work wonderfully! They are also great fro travel, as they work as a soap, shampoo, and laundry aid, all in one!!! Not to mention the fun names Lush gives to all their products…makes me laugh!

  46. Crystal says:

    This will be awesome with our dishasher and laundry detergent! I already cut back on soap and toothpaste, but I hadn’t carried that over to other stuff yet.

  47. Griffin says:

    I noticed something similar with my Neutrogena face soap. It has a pump on it and two pumps does all of my face and areas affected by my psoriasis. So that one small bottle will last about four months, while other stuff in squeeze bottles doesn’t last very long at all. It’s the pump! It only measures out a little bit for each press.

    If you are like me and HAVE to use special cleansers etc, switching to a bottle with a pump will save you a ton.

    With toothpaste, I just measure half my brush length and it works fine. If I really fill it up, it gets too foamy for me – blech.

    Oh, I also get products that do multiple things. I use Dr. Bonner’s lavendar castille soap to clean the house, in spray bottles, wash wounds, repel/kill spiders and it smells lovely. It’s gentle and I love it. $15 for a huge bottle and saves me a ton over getting spray cleansers. Works just as well for me and even better than lysol etc.

    Biokleen produce wash works wonders at getting stains out of clothes (even dried-in blood stains). One time I got blood on my in-laws carpet. It had soaked in and dried before I could clean it up. But biokleen, water and a washrag got it up instantly.

  48. Kim says:

    I’ve always diluted my shampoo before I use it. Not only to save money but because it lathers more quickly. I have a friend that doesn’t use deodorant at all. He just wipes his pits down with rubbing alcohol daily. He saves money but that just goes too far! He swears he doesn’t stink but I’m not convinced.

  49. Leah says:

    Like JuliB, I only wash my hair once or twice a week. I actually refill a little travel bottle from a big one. I’ve been using the same bottle of shampoo for years. It’s almost inconvenient, as I’d like to try some other options.

    I agree that most people use too much soap. We went to my boyfriend’s mom’s house and brought out laundry. She ended up washing one of my sweaters for me (the colors matched with her stuff). I can’t believe how strongly my sweater smelled afterward! She uses the recommended amount, but I only use a fraction of that (maybe a tablespoon or so). I far prefer less smelly clothes, I’ve never had a problem with cleanliness, and my laundry detergent also lasts forever.

  50. Georgia says:

    Zoranian – I too discovered Charmin Ultra Strong and love it. However, Consumer Reports says it is not a good tp. Good tp is strong enough to use and yet will start breaking down quickly when it is in the water. Charmin U.S. does not. It can sit in the stool for quite awhile and still be intact.

    Kim – I don’t use deoderant at all anymore either. But I use cider vinegar instead. Some one listed it as a good source and, since it didn’t cost a lot to try, I did. I check underarms especially carefully and I can go 2 days with one application of the vinegar. It leaves a slightly appley smell that is pleasant.

    As to doubling my soaps, etc., I do this with dishwashing liquid and detergent, but won’t do it with shampoo any longer. The lady who cuts my hair says this won’t work with cheaper shampoos, as their first & main ingredient is already water. I have 2 bottles now that are half/half & they are so runny it makes it hard to apply without letting half of it run out of my hand.

    And, actually, I read a research article years ago when they were testing cold water detergent. The double blind test used regular warm water detergent, cold water detergent, and just plain water. The strange thing was that on normally lightly soiled clothes, the water alone did the best job. Of course, the manufacturer did not divulge that little bit of the experiment.

  51. SwingCheese says:

    Burt’s Bees also makes a bar soap that doesn’t leave a residue on the skin. In fact, we had switched to bar soap b/c we wanted something that used less packaging, but I was having trouble in the winter with dry skin. After trying several other bars, I decided to give Burt’s Bees a go, and I love it!

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