Scientists to make hair dye and skin cream from Shetland seaweed

Harvesting seaweed from the Shetland shoreline. Click on image to enlarge.
Harvesting seaweed from the Shetland shoreline. Click on image to enlarge.

Shetland seaweed is to be used to make environmentally-friendly hair dyes in a project that it is hoped will bring jobs to the isles. Skin cream and other treatments may follow if it is a success.

Scientists at the University of Leeds will extract chemical compounds from different species of seaweed supplied by Lunnaness-based seaweed farming and processing firm Böd Ayre.

The naturally sourced compounds will be used as substitutes for synthetic ingredients that can be found in most hair dyes currently on the market, many of which are deemed to be deterimental to people’s health.

“This could bring commercial and job opportunities to Shetland for a new high-value farming industry,” said Böd Ayre’s Margaret Blance.  “It would be much better to extract the seaweed on Shetland rather than shipping elsewhere for processing.”

The scientists behind the project, which is partly funded by The Body Shop, are promising that the hair dyes will not be green. They are confident that a range of colours including blonde, brown, red and even black can be made from the extracts.

“We can make a range of colours using these natural compounds because the variety of British seaweed species is so diverse,” said Christopher Rayner, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Leeds, who is working on the two-year project with colleague Dr Richard Blackburn.

Dr Blackburn, who is leading the study, said: “We are hoping to be able to offer people a real alternative to current hair dyes that contain chemicals which are known to be very bad for you.

“Seaweed is especially suited to being used in cosmetics because it has evolved very clever techniques to protect itself from weathering. And cosmetics are all about protection from ageing and the elements.”

Many compounds in existing products are allergens and certain chemicals, notably p-phenylenediamine (PPD), have been linked to more serious long-term health effects.

The project also hopes to develop other safer and more environmentally friendly cosmetics, including skin care and hair treatments, from the compounds extracted from the Shetland seaweed.

Laboratory work at the university will focus on developing ways of isolating and extracting individual compounds found in seaweed that have these special properties in order to understand them better and explore their potential uses in other products.

The project is worth just over £500,000, including an investment of nearly £300,000 from the Technology Strategy Board, the remainder coming from The Body Shop and Böd Ayre.


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