WASHINGTON, D.C. — Homeless people face a lot of challenges. Among them: Not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Not having access to healthcare. Finding a job or getting a better-paying one. Some of the most basic challenges, however, stem from not having regular access to clean water and toiletries such as soap and shampoo. And poor personal hygiene can be particularly troubling for homeless teens. That challenge inspired a young researcher to invent a multi-purpose product — one that aims to give these teens a boost of confidence.
Leia Gluckman, 13, lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I was born into a life of volunteering,” she notes. And that’s almost literally true: Her mom is the vice president of an organization that provides help for homeless teens in the nearby city of Venice. Leia and her brother have volunteered there for years. When she was a toddler, Leia helped serve desserts at the tables where teens were eating. Later, she helped teens with art projects. Now, as a young teen herself, she’s hosting toiletry and clothing drives and tackling a variety of other chores.
From her work at the center, Leia noticed that teens asked for some hygiene products more than others. What they sought most often were toothpaste, body powder and shampoo. Leia wondered whether she might be able to create a product that could serve all three purposes.
It would need to absorb sweat and oil from skin and hair. It would need to clean teeth. Plus, it would need to kill bacteria without being harmful to people. She wanted her ingredients to be natural and biodegradable — and for the resulting product to taste and smell pleasant. And even that wasn’t the end of it. This product had to be low-cost and have a long shelf life. (That means it can’t spoil easily, even if not refrigerated.)
It wasn’t easy, but Leia came up with some prototype products. And she presented them here, October 21, at the finals of the Broadcom MASTERS science competition.
Broadcom MASTERS brings together 30 middle-school students each year for a special competition. (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.) The program was created in 2011 by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News for Students. The Broadcom Foundation of Irvine, Calif., sponsors the event.
Developing a recipe
Leia started by going to stores and looking at the ingredient lists for tooth powders, body powders and dry shampoos. Then she put together eight different trial recipes of her own. She tested each formula to see how well it absorbed body oil and cleaned hair. To gauge how these might work as a toothpaste, she tested them at removing coffee stains from eggshells.
Not all of Leia’s ingredients worked. Oat flour, for instance, clumped as it absorbed body oils. Lavender initially had a strong scent, but quickly faded.
Eventually, Leia settled on three working recipes. Each contains salt and baking powder. The salt acts as an abrasive. That helps it clean teeth and remove grime, she notes. Baking powder helps absorb odors. Her three recipes’ other ingredients differ. Some of those ingredients included cloves, cinnamon and chamomile (KAM-oh-meel). Those sorts of things give her products different tastes and smells. That would let teens choose a product based on personal preferences.
Leia wants to develop her products further. “Could it be used to repel mosquitoes?” she asks. “Or does it attract them? These are questions I want to answer next,” she notes.
Science offers a way to go about “solving problems and helping people,” says Leia. And she thinks her products could benefit a broad range of people, not just the homeless. Anyone in an area with little or no access to clean water could find her products useful, she says. That includes refugees as well as soldiers who are deployed to remote locations without running water.
bacteria (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals).
Broadcom MASTERS Created in 2011 by the Society for Science & the Public, Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. Broadcom MASTERS International gives select middle school students from around the world a unique opportunity to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.
engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.
gauge A device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else. (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.
hygiene Behaviors and practices that help to maintain health.
literally A term that means precisely what it says. For instance, to say: "It's so cold that I'm literally dying," means that this person actually expects to soon be dead, the result of getting too cold.
prototype A first or early model of some device, system or product that still needs to be perfected.
salt A compound made by combining an acid with a base (in a reaction that also creates water). The ocean contains many different salts — collectively called “sea salt.” Common table salt is a made of sodium and chlorine.
STEM An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.
taste One of the basic properties the body uses to sense its environment, especially foods, using receptors (taste buds) on the tongue (and some other organs).
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.