A few years ago, the Department of Defense put out an odd request: They wanted researchers to make a better makeup. Specifically, they wanted a makeup that could protect soldiers’ faces from the intense heat of bomb attacks.
"When I first heard about the project, I thought it was crazy," said Robert Lochhead, a polymer scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi in a press conference at a Philadelphia meeting of the American Chemical Society.
To put the challenge in context, when a roadside bomb explodes, it creates two dangerous situations. First, a blast wave blows a layer of highly compressed wind away from the explosion. The wave is quickly followed by a two-second searing thermal blast that heats everything in its path to 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit. "It literally cooks anything in its path," said Lochhead. "People in the way of the wave suffer third-degree burns and often die." Burns could be made worse by wax-based camouflage makeup, and the DOD was looking for a new super-makeup that would protect skin from those high temperatures.
The challenge seemed insurmountable, but after Lochhead and his team did a quick search of pigments available, they found out that part of the solution had already been completed: another researcher had created pigments. They still had to find a way to use silicones as the base of the makeup, which are not as flammable as the fatty substances in traditional facepaint. It uses a similar technology to non-transfer lipstick to bind the pigments and silicones together.
Another challenge was finding a way to safely incorporate DEET, a flammable insect repellent, which must make up 35% of all camouflage makeup, according to a mandate from the military. Lochhead said his team encapsulated DEET in a hydrogel substance, a water-rich material, preventing it from catching fire.
"We did several thousand formulations until we found one that we used a butane torch on that would not give even first-degree burns," said Lochhead. He said that the team has devised a makeup that protects the face and hands for up to 15 seconds before its own temperature climbs to the point where a mild first-degree burn is possible. In some tests, they said that window of protection grew to 60 seconds—enough time for soldiers to get out of an explosive situation.
The group is continuing to test the makeup on pig skin; they haven’t gotten approval to try it on humans yet. They plan to look into a formulation that could be used on the outside of fabric, to protect clothing, tents, and other material from burning. They are also developing a colorless version for firefighters.
"We are on the way to having a commercial product that hopefully will save lives," said Lochhead.