Using Human Hair to Soak Up Oil Spills

We have all seen the pictures of animals and birds with oil stuck to them after an oil spill, but there are successful methods that use this issue to clean up the oil spills. Hair soaks up oil and traps it making it a simple, sustainable option to stop and collect oil spills in marinas, rivers lakes, and oceans. While the number of large oil spills has decreased over the last 50 years there are still approximately 2500 smaller oil spills that happen each year.

Using hair to soak up oil has been proven to work.

While today the standard is synthetic sorbent materials, they are not biodegradable and can be expensive. A study done by the University of Technology Sydney tested many different natural-origin sorbent materials for land-based oil spills, including peat moss, recycled human hair, and dog fur showed that sustainable, cheaper, and biodegradable options can be developed.

“Dog fur, in particular, was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills,” said the lead author of the study, UTS Environmental Scientist Dr. Murray. He investigates environmentally-friendly solutions for contamination and leads The Phyto Lab research group at UTS School of Life Sciences. “Hair is a natural biosorbent. It’s been shown to adsorb three to nine times its weight in oil,” said Rebecca Pagnucco, who was involved in the study.

In 2014 in India, a study was done examining the use of hair to soak up oil, and some interesting details were discovered. Their test results show that women’s hair has a little better properties to soak up oil and the time that hair will continue to soak up oil is 270 – 300 minutes before it becomes saturated. Hair is lipophilic, so the hydrocarbons stick to it, that’s why you can wash the oil out of hair, it doesn’t absorb them.

A few examples of where hair has been used successfully

On 16 March 1978, the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground on Portsall Rocks, 2 km from the coast of Brittany, France, resulting in the largest oil spill of its kind in history to that date. Hair was one of the methods used to soak up the oil in the ocean.

The technique was also used after the Taylor Energy oil platform was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Taylor plugged and covered some of the broken walls, but large oily sheens have been visible on the water’s surface for more than a decade. The Taylor spill is the nation’s longest continuous oil disaster on record, with a total pollution footprint that may rival the better-known BP spill.

Fair Hairdressers

Thierry Gras, a hairdresser from southern France, remembered the use of hair to soak up oil in the Amoco Cadiz accident. So he set up Coiffeurs Justes (Fair Hairdressers) in 2015 that now includes 3,300 contributing members, as a way to recycle the vast amounts of hair waste produced in salons each year. The collected hair is stuffed into fabric tubes that are then floated in the Port of Cavalaire-Sur-Mer. Proving success, the tubes of hair are unlike polymer sponges, because they can be washed and reused up to ten times.

In July of 2020, a Japanese ship hit a reef just off the shore of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, and a few weeks later started leaking oil and fuel. Mauritius declared an emergency and the people of the island nation cut and collected hair and stuffed it in fine netting to make oil removing booms to keep the oil from spreading. Fair Hairdressers also sent a shipment of hair to help with the cleanup in Mauritius as well as almost 10 tons of hair from salons In Sydney Australia, who had been collecting the hair for an emergency like this.

ship off the coast of Mauritius leaking oil

Matter of Trust

Matter of Trust is a nonprofit based in San Fransisco, and with their clean wave program accepts donations of hair and uses it to weave oil mats from hair in partnership with one of their various felters in the US and around the world. Phil McCrory, a hairstylist, and inventor from Alabama had been washing an oily head of hair while watching CNN coverage of otters covered in oil during the famous Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 in Alaska. It occurred to him that he was cutting fiber that could be used to soak up oil spills.

Years later, in 1999. he began a partnership with Lisa Gautier, Matter of Trust founder and President. There are over 370,000 hair salons in the US and over 200,000 pet groomers. They each cut on average two pounds of hair or fur a day. This can be used to make their hair mats and booms, to be ready in case of a disaster, or sold as oil removing products to the general public.

matter of trust oil absorbing tubes of hair

Matter of Trust worked with hundreds of volunteers and surfers, know as Kill the Spill, to place their booms on the shores of the San Francisco Bay in 2007 when the cargo ship named Cosco Busan hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the water. Then they collected the booms and did a study, composting the hair and oil with the help from experts at UC Berkley.

Over the years, Matter of Trust has gained more recognition and use in many more spills, and in Texas for collecting oil before the water enters their storm drains, and they partnered with the Air Force who showed good results using the mats and booms. On February 9, 2021, there was a fuel leak of approximately 600 gallons in San Francisco bay, where the hair booms were used in conjunction with other methods to contain and remove the fuel from the water. To learn about 12 different methods for cleaning oil and plastic from rivers and harbors, check out this page.

matter of trust oil absorbing tubes of hair
Matter of Trust’s hair mats set in place to absorb oil before the water enters the storm sewer

What you can do to help

While most people don’t come in contact with oil spills on a daily basis, it could be a helpful thing to know, especially for boaters. Everyone gets their haircut, so asking your barber about what they do with your hair could be an interesting conversation. Tell them about the usefulness of hair and send them to Matter Of Trust to donate the hair.

Homemade absorbent booms for oil cleanups are easy to make, simply using women’s pantyhose stuffed full of hair. So they are simple and almost free if you want to make your own. Here is a video explaining a little more.

I you thought this was interesting, share it with a friend. Thanks for reading and stay curious!

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