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Lanolin, Wool and Hand Cream

Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2007
Instructions on how to make hand cream out of sheep's wool, one of the scientists' challenges on the BBC/OU series Rough Science 3

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Mike Bullivant making hand cream Challenge
To make a soothing hand cream from whatever local resources we liked. All that gold panning at the river took it out on our skin!


What is lanolin?
Lanolin is the smelly pale-yellow natural oil found on sheep’s wool. As a waste product in wool processing, it’s also known as wool oil, wool wax, wool fat, or wool grease. It’s a natural water-repellant, the function of which, it’s not too hard to guess, is to waterproof the sheep. Lanolin also has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties that protect the sheep’s skin from infection. Derived from the animal’s oil glands, lanolin’s a mixture of wool fat and 25-30% water. Wool fat is a mixture of many different chemical compounds, including cholesterol and the esters derived from ‘fatty’ acids containing 18 to 26 carbon atoms.

Lanolin is used widely in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. The oils in lanolin are similar in chemical composition to those that are secreted by human skin. What’s more, it readily forms an emulsion with water that’s readily absorbed by the skin, softening it and thereby preventing it drying and cracking (this would explain why sheep shearers have such soft hands).

Strictly speaking, lanolin is a wax and not a fat or oil and melts at 38-42 ºC.

To extract the lanolin from unwashed wool you boil the wool in water for a few hours, adding salt to improve the yield of lanolin. Next, reduce the solution down by boiling off most of the water. After filtering off any un-dissolved solid material from the hot solution, and cooling, you should be left with a pale-yellow, waxy solid floating on the surface of the water. This is impure lanolin. You can purify it, as we did in the programme, by taking the crude lanolin and shaking it with a mixture of olive oil and water. The impurities will dissolve in the water or olive oil, leaving you with ‘purified’ lanolin as an off-white, waxy solid that settles between the oil and water layers.

The properties of wool
Wool has a very complex chemical and physical structure, which accounts for its uniqueness and versatility as a textile fibre. The fibres are made up of more than 20 amino acids, which combine to form long chains (polymers) of protein.

It’s the internal structure of each woolen fibre - a three-dimensional corkscrew pattern, or helical ‘crimp’ – that gives wool its elasticity. The coiled springs of these molecular chains, with their permanent built-in ‘memory’, makes the woolen fibres themselves coil-shaped, accounting for their enduring resilience.

Wool is superior to all other fibres in its ability to handle body moisture in both warm and cool environments. The porosity of the cells in the outer layers of wool fibre allows them to quickly and efficiently absorb and evaporate moisture. In fact, the fibres can absorb up to 30% of their own weight in moisture — ten times as much as any synthetic fibre — without feeling damp or clammy. The porous structure also explains why wool is such a good thermal insulator, not to mention the mesh of the fibres, which creates millions of air pockets, all of which further help to regulate temperature and humidity.

Wool is a naturally strong fibre. It can bend back on itself 20 000 times without breaking; compare this to cotton at 3200 times, silk at 1800, and rayon at only 75 times.

Due to its unique chemical structure and natural moisture content, wool is naturally fire-resistant.

Despite its natural moisture content, wool's dry, porous nature repels mildew and dust mites.

How to make your own lanolin hand cream
Here's a recipe for lanolin hand cream you may wish to try out.

3 Tbsp. lanolin
3 Tbsp. distilled water
3 Tbsp. grated beeswax
1/2 cup almond oil
3 Tbsp. witch hazel
1/8 tsp. borax powder

Mix the beeswax, lanolin and almond oil in an ovenproof dish. Sit the dish in a pan with about 4cm of water in it and then place in an oven, and heat until the beeswax and lanolin have melted.

Mix together the witch hazel, borax powder and distilled water. Heat these up until just boiling and then slowly pour into the melted beeswax/lanolin/almond oil mixture, stirring thoroughly and then cool.

When the mixture is entirely cooled, you'll have a thick white cream to soften your skin.

How about fragrancing your hand cream? You could add almost any essential (aromatherapy) oil to it (but be careful to check your sensitivity to each oil beforehand, and heed the warnings associated with some essential oils). 5 to 10 drops of essential oil in 100 grammes of cream should be adequate. You could also add very finely chopped flower petals or herbs to the cream, to give it a different texture and aroma.

We fragranced our lanolin hand cream with tee tree oil (sometimes referred to as 'tea tree oil'), not only because of its delicate nutmeg smell, but because it has a wide range of medicinal, properties.

Tee tree oil is produced and contained in small sacs on the leaves of the tee tree plant. The sacs are ruptured on heating, thereby releasing their oil. This is how we obtained ours. It’s been estimated that 2 tonnes of leaves will provide about 20 litres of tee tree oil.

What’s the difference between a fat, an oil and a wax?
The difference between a fat and an oil is that a fat is a solid or semi-solid at room temperature, whereas an oil is a liquid. There are significant chemical differences between fats and oils too.

Generally speaking, saturated ‘fatty’ acids lead to fats, while oils more usually contain unsaturated ‘fatty’ acids. As they’re made up only of single bonds, saturated ‘fatty’ acids are flexible. The carbon-carbon double bonds in unsaturated ‘fatty’ acids on the other hand are more rigid and less flexible. They’re therefore less compact than those derived from saturated ‘fatty’ acids. As a result, they’re usually (liquid) oils.

Waxes are materials that can be moulded when warm, but when cold, they’re hard and, sometimes, brittle. Waxes are insoluble in water and water-repellent. Natural waxes such as beeswax (from honeycombs) and lanolin (from wool) are esters of ‘fatty’ acids with alcohols containing only one alcohol (OH) group. This distinguishes them from vegetable oils and fats, which contain three OH groups.

Did you know?
- A woolen undersheet on your bed will eliminate dust mites, as they can’t survive in the natural lanolin of the wool.

- A woolen blanket can also help you sleep better. Tests have shown that the heart rate under a wool-filled comforter was significantly lower 100% of the time and the humidity next to the skin was shown to be significantly lower 71% of the time.

What other uses is lanolin put to?
Well, as its an excellent water-repellent, it’s used on oil rigs as a corrosion inhibitor (an agent that slows down the rusting process). For the same reason, spare motor car parts are sometimes coated in lanolin when they’re put into long-term storage. Because it’s similar in composition to many of the oils natuarally produced by human skin, it’s widely used in the pharmaceutical industry.

Indeed, when mixed with suitable vegetable oils or soft paraffin, the resulting cream is so good at penetrating the skin that it’s been used as a ‘carrier’ to deliver pharmaceutical drugs subcutaneously (subcutaneously means just below the skin). As well as a base for ointments and creams, it’s also a lubricant, and used in finishing and preserving leather. You’ll even find lanolin as a constituent of some varnishes and paints.


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