HOLIDAY — As anyone who has gone days without shampooing knows, nothing attracts oil quite like hair.
That might explain why there are boxes of strangers' hair clippings in Princess Obriot's garage.
As president of the environmental group Make Mine Bluegreen, she's leading a call for donations of hair, fur and wool, key components in the cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico oil slick headed for Florida's shores.
Hair is the perfect oil-fighter: it's light, spongy, flexible and free, Obriot said. A clump of it can be sopped in oil, wrung clean and immediately reused. The best part? It's pretty easy to find.
"Hair by itself, by nature, is the best," Obriot said. "Mother Nature had something in mind for that."
More than 40 salons in Pasco and Hernando counties, she said, have committed to bagging, boxing and donating the sheared hair. Salons like Diva Glam in Port Richey, the Puppy Love grooming salon in New Port Richey and Shear Stylin in Tarpon Springs promised to regularly hand over the hair they once just threw away.
From there, volunteers will stuff clippings into panty hose to make booms, or press long strands into mats. The group plans to take the hair-filled tools with them when they join a response team of other volunteers within the next few days. Also at their disposal, as donations provide: Dawn dish soap, cat litter pans and soft-bristle brushes to wash damaged wildlife.
Technically, hair doesn't "absorb" oil, it "adsorbs" it. Oil clings to the hair's surface rather than soaking into the strand.
The results, though, are the same. A pound of hair can soak up a quart of oil, Obriot said, and a mat of hair can be wrung out and reused up to 100 times.
The idea that hair could clean up oil, inspired by an Alabama hairdresser after the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, has gained traction over years of disastrous spills. In 1998, researchers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center tested a hair-nylon filter in drums of oiled water. In 2006, guards in the Philippines shaved prisoners' heads to help soak up a spill off the island of Guimaras. A year later, a volunteer group called Matter of Trust compressed hair mats for use on oil-slicked rocks after a spill near San Francisco's Bay Bridge.
Matter of Trust still receives hair in the mail — president Lisa Gautier estimated at one point she was getting 5,000 pounds of donated hair a month — but the group has now asked local donors to hold off on shipping. That means local groups like Make Mine Bluegreen may be the closest destination for spare hair.
Other salons have pledged to collect their hair for similar cleanup efforts. At the Pasadena Shopping Center in Gulfport, groomers at Joy's Doggery have filled three old shampoo boxes with a mix of Yorkie, Poodle and Puli fur that looks, co-owner Melanie Huling said, a bit like a calico.
Stylists at the Michael Angelo Hair Studio in Tampa are collecting about a pound of hair a day for donation, said business manager Anthony Bellapigna. Collecting nylon stockings and mesh plastic to create the booms can be the hardest part, he said, though the salon won't say no to extra stuffing.
"People ask me, what can I do to help,'" Bellapigna said. "I tell them go get a haircut."
Obriot's supporters, such as Girl Scout Troop 10075, span as far as south Florida.
Four of the Scouts circled the cafeteria table of Flamingo Elementary School in Davie, looking at two garbage bags of strangers' hair Tuesday afternoon.
Western High School senior Layla Souchet, 17, had told the girls before meeting that they would be helping clean up the massive oil slick let loose across the Gulf of Mexico.
At first, "they were like, 'oh, that's really cool. What can we do,' " Souchet said. That was before she walked in with garbage bags of clippings from a nearby Hair Cuttery. "Then they were like, 'Why do you have this big bag of hair?' " she said.
The Girl Scouts began reluctantly grabbing handfuls of hair to try and weave a makeshift mop head, but the strands were too short and hard to hold in place.
What did work, they found, was stuffing the clumped hair into their mothers' old, holey leggings. After about 10 minutes of work, the girls had built five sets of floating booms that looked, as Souchet said, "like a giant rat tail."
They still thought it was gross, lamenting that they didn't have gloves and that one strand was gunked with gum. But with a Scouts trip to Sanibel Island planned for this summer, and the oil still spreading through the water, the girls have no plans to stop.
The Scouts will be doing this "until all the oil is cleaned up," Souchet said. "It's a great way to help, and I get the satisfaction of knowing I just saved a little otter, or something."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and reporter Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.