August 22, 2012

War Paint Gets a Chemistry Make Over

by Christine Hoekenga

North Dakota National Guard recruits practice applying camouflage face paint as part of their training. Chemists from the University of Southern Mississippi are formulating a new silicon-based paint that can reflect the intense heat of a bomb blast or fire. Image: Senior Master Sgt. David Lipp, courtesy of The U.S. National Guard (CC).

This week, thousands of scientists are gathered in Philadelphia, PA for the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting.  They’ll be doling out the 2012 Heroes of Chemistry awards and discussing all kinds of chemistry-related topics from climate change to drug treatments for chronic diseases.

But one symposium in particular caught our eye: Polymers for Personal Care and Cosmetics.  Most of the presentation abstracts focus on the ingredients and chemical properties of familiar products like toothpaste, hairspray, and skin cleansers–which are fascinating in themselves.  But one presentation describes a newly developed camouflage face paint that can shield the skin from the heat of a bomb blast or fire.

For Dr. Robert Lochhead and his research team at the University of Southern Mississippi, developing the prototype of this super make-up for the U.S. Department of Defense was truly a chemistry puzzle. They needed to create face paint that would reflect intense heat but was also waterproof, easy to apply and remove, worked as camouflage, didn’t irritate the eyes, and contained at least 35 percent of the insect repellent DEET.

Most commonly used combat face paints have an oil or wax base, which is flammable and may make burns worse by melting to the skin. Lochhead and his team took a cue from many modern cosmetics and substituted silicon for these traditional hydrocarbon ingredients.  Then they used a hydrogel (a network of polymers capable of holding a large amount of water) to encapsulate the DEET and prevent it from catching fire.

In lab tests, the new paint protects skin from intense heat for between 15 and 60 seconds–potentially enough time to allow a soldier or fire fighter to move to safety. The researchers also plan to test it on clothing, tents, and other surfaces that could benefit from extreme heat protection.

LEARN MORE
For more about the purpose and importance of scientific meetings see our module on Scientific Communication: The How and Why of Scientific Meetings.

For more about how professional societies like the ACS help foster scientific progress, read our module on Scientific Institutions and Societies.

For a fun look at the chemistry of everyday items, check out Chemical and Engineering News’What’s that STUFF?” page.

Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.