Two recent University of Michigan alumni are working to create biodegradable hair extensions from invasive plant species, which they hope will be a healthier and more sustainable hair extension option, especially for Black women.
Environment and Sustainability alum Jannice Newson and LSA alum Nana Britwum met at a STEM conference in Seattle. They said they became friends when they realized they’re both University alumni.
“One of these times that we were together, we were talking about braids,” Newson said. “I had some braids, and they were itching and breaking out, and my neck was hurting.”
This conversation, they said, was the inspiration for their research. They realized that typical synthetic hair extensions, made of various plastics, aren’t healthy for the environment or for women. So the two set out to make something better.
They said some hair beauty products are low-quality and don’t give much information on the possible health concerns for the product being used.
“A lot of people are in the dark — they don’t know the hair is plastic, and they don’t know that it’s carcinogenic plastic and it’s hurting the environment and possibly hurting themselves, and that’s why they’re having all these issues,” Newson said. “People should be able to have this information, and that’s why this research is important.”
The two originally used phragmites, an invasive plant species in Michigan, to make biodegradable hair extensions. Since then, Newson and Britwum have broadened their project to include a number of different plants, but they said they are committed to using phragmites as much as they can.
“(Phragmites) is a huge issue in Michigan,” Newson said. “People don’t really have a workable solution for it. They burn it a lot, which is also not good, and there’s no other uses for it so (it’s) being taken out of the areas. We’d love to be able to provide a way for it to actually be used to better someone’s life.”
LSA senior Paityn Wedder, president of the University’s chapter of the Sierra Club, said initiatives like Britwum and Newson’s are especially important to Michigan. She said the Great Lakes region is especially prone to invasive species, which can quickly change the natural balance in an ecosystem because invasive species adeptly outcompete native species.
“Being able to incorporate an invasive species into a product that can be sold and turn into a great thing is really important in today’s world,” Wedder said.
Wedder said the University should sponsor more research toward sustainability. She said projects like Newson and Britwum’s are crucial to working against environmental problems.
“If we want to be able to preserve our earth for our own generation and generations to come, we need to continue with this research to make sure that we’re making the best decisions possible to conserve our ecosystems,” Wedder said.
Business senior Jaclynn Spryshak is co-president of Net-Impact, a club focusing on the intersection of business and sustainability. She said Newson and Britwum’s business exemplified the importance of being conscious of environmental impact in the beauty industry.
“The beauty industry or salon product is something that’s very central to you and your identities,” Spryshak said. “It’s really important for people to have the option, if you’re going to use or consume that product anyways, to have it be sustainable.”
Spryshak echoed Wedder, saying it is important for the University to invest in sustainability efforts.
“Because we are quite literally at the brink of a (climate) crisis, we’re seeing a crisis right now and there’s a scientific consensus about it,” Spryshak said. “I think there are some really obvious things the University could be doing … putting their shoulder into those projects and stepping into it rather than being hesitant.”
Newson and Britwum said environmentally friendly beauty products are usually marketed toward wealthier people and, typically, white people. They said their business focused on the important intersections between race and environmentalism.
“If we actually want to play a role in our climate crisis, everyone needs to be involved and everyone needs to feel included,” Britwum said. “For us, that is so important, because it shouldn’t be closed off for those that can’t afford it, and by making a product that’s culturally relevant for folks, we can further engage in that.”
Britwum and Newsom said the COVID-19 pandemic hit their research hard, because they could not use their lab and did not have access to industrial equipment, facilities and personnel on campus.
However, they have been able to adapt and continue working. They reached out to a number of different manufacturers to test their prototypes.
Since then, they have continued to work diligently on their research. The two are now moving forward with the next big steps, beginning with hosting their first focus group next month to evaluate the appeal of their product. The focus group will be the first time a customer gets a full head of their hair extensions.
“We’re super excited to actually have folks use plant-based hair and give us some really insightful feedback,” Britwum said.
Daily Staff Reporter Paige Hodder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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