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Scientist Develops Eco-Friendly and Inexpensive Hair Gel From Soybean and Safflower Seeds

By Linda McElreath
February 24, 2003

Thirty-five years ago, the future was in plastics, or petroleum-based polymers. While this may still hold true for some products, hair gel isn't one of them. Petrol-based styling agents are old news, according to Sam Kuk, a chemical engineer with the Agricultural Research Service.

Kuk, based in the Commodity Utilization Research Unit at ARS' Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, La., has been studying plant-based compounds as a 21st-century alternative to the synthetic ingredients used in many hair care products today.

Right now, most hair gel benefits from the holding power of synthetic polymers. When the gel is applied, the main ingredient--water--evaporates, leaving a thin film around the hair strands, helping to keep them in place.

Kuk has found that one can get the same kind of hold with lipid compounds derived from soapstock, an underused byproduct of oilseed processing. Normally, these lipid compounds are hard to recover. They degenerate through oxidation and are wasted. However, Kuk has found a way to reclaim the valuable compounds and then treat them so that they maintain their useful properties.

He has created hair gels from the soapstock of safflower and soybean oilseeds and tested them in the lab. The gels work well on a variety of hair types, from thick and kinky to fine and straight, and would be relatively inexpensive to produce, since soapstock costs only a fraction of the price of synthetic polymers.

Kuk has used the same thin-film technology to create transparent and translucent coatings for freshly harvested produce. In several experiments, he has shown that the biodegradable films can extend the shelf life of produce such as bell peppers and cucumbers by at least 30 percent when compared to uncoated fruits. The films also wash off easily in the sink, unlike paraffin wax coatings, which also cost more.

Kuk hopes to generate interest in this technology and perhaps collaborate in his research with a hair care product manufacturer or fresh produce processor.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.