Illustration by Maren Slobody

When it comes to poison oak, it can take more than avoidance to take care of the problem. After getting the infamous rash one too many times, Rebecca Braslau, a UC Santa Cruz chemistry professor, devoted herself to developing a spray that reveals contact with poison oak.

Detectable under a blacklight, the spray causes anything contaminated with poison oaks’ oil, urushiol, to glow fluorescent blue.

The spray doesn’t just work with poison oak. Poison ivy and poison sumac create urushiol and light up with the spray as well. Even mangos light up, Braslau said, because they too create small amounts of urushiol.

“You want to be able to see where it is, and I realized that fluorescents is the way to go because fluorescents, you can have teeny, tiny amounts and still see a signal,” Braslau said.

Braslau’s determination to tackle the poison oak problem began when she started teaching at UCSC.

“I’d spent my whole childhood as a Girl Scout hiking up [and] down California and presumably being exposed to poison oak, and I never got it,” Baslau said. “And then I moved here and I had a dog who got it on her. Ever since then I’ve been more and more and more sensitive, and now I’m ultra sensitive to it. It’s just an [immunity] thing — the more often you’re exposed, if you’re going to be susceptible, the easier it is to get. So I just didn’t get it for years, and now I’m super allergic.”

The problem stayed in her mind for years. Braslau continued her work in chemistry with compounds that would later become a major part of her spray. Then one day, she had an insight.

“I went ‘oh my gosh, I know how to do this’,” Braslau said. “I thought about it and I had this idea and I came running into lab the next day … and it was amazing, it just worked. It just worked right away.”

Braslau’s revelation was that using chemicals that she works with often, known as nitroxides, she was able to carry the fluorescent chemical to the urushiol. The fluorescent glow is kept from turning on by a single electron. When the spray binds to urushiol, the urushiol steals the electron away, allowing the spray to show up brightly under the blacklight.

Frank Rivera III, one of the graduate students who worked with Braslau on the project, said when Braslau brought it to the team, everyone was immediately on board.

“I was so excited because I was not just doing chemistry that would allow me to explore reactions, I was actually going to have a role in developing something that was applicable,” Rivera said. “I was actually developing something that could be applied someday.”

Many who have encountered poison oak like Stephanie Coronado, fourth-year ecology and evolutionary biology major, may say they wish they had had the spray in the past. Coronado said her past encounter with poison oak has left her with more than just a memory.

“I decided to plant trees on Earth Day and did not see the poison oak that we were standing in,” Coronado said. “It was all over my feet and my legs and my arms. The feet were the worst because whenever you wore shoes it was like you were dancing all day, it itched so much … I still have scars on my feet to forever remember that lovely tree I planted.”

Braslau said she gets emails from people begging her for the spray, and she wishes she could help them, but the spray is still ready to be placed on market shelves.

“We’ve never had it tested,” Braslau said. “I won’t even spray it on myself or my dog. I would probably try it on my hiking boots but I haven’t done that.”

Part of the problem is that she just hasn’t received the funding. Without money, she can’t do the research she needs to do in order to make sure the product is ready for consumers and hire the kind of help she needs.

“If I had a post doc [graduate student], we could probably bang it out in six months. But I’ve got some beginning people on it now,” Braslau said.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) denied grant proposals to Braslau several times Braslau said, and the only money she has received for this project was “a teeny, tiny, little amount from UC Santa Cruz.”

Although her eventual goal is to deactivate urushiol altogether, Braslau said it can be just as important to know where the allergen is in order to fight it. Many people need to do just that, including firefighters, search and rescue, PG&E workers and everyday hikers.

“Tiny, tiny amounts [are] enough to cause an allergic reaction,” Braslau said. “It doesn’t just go away. There’s museum samples of this stuff that 20, 30, 50 years later still cause an allergic reaction. It’s robust.”