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So, some aliens discover that human skin oil has unique properties that are desirable for them. They cannot synthetically synthesize it for whatever reason.

So, to be clear, they really want the stuff. Nothing else will do, no animal oils or synthetic products. They need naturally produced human sebum, as fresh as possible.

How could the oil be effectively harvested from humans? Preferably without killing them. It doesn’t need to be comfortable but it shouldn’t kill the person involved.

The best answer would describe a method that maximises oil production. How much could they expect to get from a person each day? Of course, there’s a lot of variation here but I need ballpark numbers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Purists will argue that 'how would you harvest human sebum' and 'how much could you get from a human' are separate questions, but really the answer to the former strongly influences the latter to the point that they're likely inseparable. $\endgroup$
    – K. Morgan
    Jan 5 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ Quite clearly you must squeeze. Extra virgin human sebum is that which they didn't heat the human to extract the last remaining sebum from, with its lower quality. A mechanical screw press is suggested, but get yours however you like best. Just note that there may be a few contaminants that you'll need to remove later if you don't like that sort of thing. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jan 5 at 15:39

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Refine it from human bathing practices.

Bathing is in large part the removal of sebum from the skin. tell humans I'll give you $40 for your bathwater and the humans will start collecting and storing it for you. An outline filtration system could concentrate and remove from the water if you want something less bulky and don't want to completely redesign the sewers of major cities. soap mobilizes the sebum to wash it away so the humans have already created an extraction system you just need to collect it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like this answer. The story its self is kinda a silly one. Random people keep disappearing, and dead aliens keep turning up with reports of mass amounts of them appearing out of no where and kidnapping people before they know what’s going on. $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Feb 18 at 8:43
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A bit of a frame challenge:

There is nothing even remotely unique about human sebum. Even if there were unique qualities to it collectively, modern HUMAN tech could mass- produce the stuff if it was important. No synthesis - cell culture. The only logical factor that would make human-derived sebum unique is aesthetics (“It’s a Bill Gibson 2032 bottle. Yes it’s twice as much, but I’m worth it.”)

Cell culture:

Your aliens should start growing human skin. You don’t need the whole human, just an appropriate extra cellular matrix for creating the appropriate tissue. You grow a sheet of real human skin. They aren’t synthesizing it; it’s real skin. Humans are doing this kind of thing today.

Virtual people:

Next, make a pig that makes skin identical to humans. In fact, they could be genetically mostly human, but without the inconvenient “human” part. We are also doing exactly this kind of thing today.

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  • $\begingroup$ So the aliens are actually fairly low tech and closed minded. They randomly stumbled into FTL which in this universe is fairly simple. Their tech is roughly comparable to ours in the present day but lacking in many areas. Basically, they arrived on earth, found out that human sebum is uniquely beneficial medically and culturally aren’t willing to explore other options. There tech moves at a glacial pace it took them over a million years to do what took us 6K. And it’d take many thousands of years to figure this out. They see an animal with a desirable product — they want to raise it like one $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Dec 30, 2023 at 6:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex They'll presumably be much more interested in exploring other options when it turns out that the sebum animals not only have machine guns and nuclear weapons, but have the ability to mass produce sebum and are willing to trade giant barrels of it for the FTL equivalent of a 30-year-old pickup truck. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Dec 30, 2023 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ With how clear the line "They need naturally produced human sebum, as fresh as possible" in the Question is, I don't think that a frame challenge is really appropriate here. WB.SE is all about answering otherwise silly questions. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jan 5 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Dragongeek the question was adjusted since I answered (probably in answer to this challenge). I love these kinds of questions, certainly didn’t think it was a bad one, and I hope I helped the clarity. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 5 at 21:39
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Announce your presence and offer top dollar!

'Hello humans we are XXX from the planet YYY, not only do we come in peace but we're here to offer all of humanity an 'in' on one of the greatest business deals in galactic history.

We offer to trade advanced technology, scientific knowledge and access to the galactic community in exchange for your race's assistance in extracting and purifying the ultra rare compound you know as 'sebum'. We are also interested in engaging with your scientists in finding new and innovative ways to maximizing the output/production and supply of this rare resource to the rest of the galaxy. Should research on this project prove successful we are of course willing to pay a generous % of the profits into a global investment trust for the benefit of your entire race.

Ultimately of course we hope to find a way of producing this product synthetically but we realize this will only be possible with your help. That being the case we look forward to a long and mutually profitable trading relationship with humanity.'

The end!

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According to science direct:

Sebum production is mainly influenced by androgens and varies among individuals and races, but the average rate in adults is approximately 1 mg/10 cm2 every 3 h.

This eight milligrams a day per person. Your aliens would need hundreds thousands of people just to get a few kilos each day. However, sebum is important stuff; it moisturises and protects the skin, so you probably don’t want to remove every drop of it. Better to just remove a small percentage from each person, maybe 10% idk, of the sebum they produce. So now you need over a billion humans hooked up to these aliens’ equipment for a full 24 hours to obtain a single ton of sebum.

I mean… it’s doable, provided humanity is okay to have a sizeable chunk of its population sent away to have their skin milked. Maybe the aliens offered to fix global warming or bring back a moon made of gold from their solar system? But I digress.

As to how to extract it? Probably your best bet is to make everybody wear skintight suits that absorb fluids (with holes cut out for feeding and breathing and so on) and cover the suits in wire-thin tubules that suck up the dermal juice through capillary action. It’d be an intriguing sight for sure, and since its a passive process (no scrapers or suction-cups) it’s unlikely to be painful.

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  • $\begingroup$ But I’m guessing the harvesting process wouldn’t be 100% efficient. How much could you realistically get out of a person? $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Dec 29, 2023 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ “> mg/10 cm2 every 3 h. This eight milligrams a day per person” that’s 8mg per day, per 10 square centimeters, which humans have a lot more skin than that. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Dec 29, 2023 at 16:49

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