Hair donation charities have been around since at least the 1980s. And without question, they have served a very important function: bringing (usually) free nonsurgical hair systems for mostly children and women who are experiencing hair loss due to disease or medications and treatments used to address illnesses such as cancer.
But questions have been raised over where the hair goes. Is it all used in wigs for those in need? Or is someone making a profit on these donations?
First, in the best of circumstances they do exactly what is promised. Hair donated by adults and even children have been used for thousands of such hair systems (hairpieces) that are almost always given away free to patients (some on a sliding scale according to need). But the facts are that not all hair is usable for hair replacement for children. The reasons for this are:
Donated hair has to be long enough. The leading hair charities (Children with Hair Loss, Hair We Share, Locks of Love, Pink Heart Funds, Wigs for Kids, Pantene Beautiful Lengths) require hair that is 8 inches long and some require it to be 14 inches or longer.
Hair that is wet is not accepted. In shipping and storage it will become moldy.
Hair that’s been bleached or overprocessed usually not accepted. Although this varies by the organization, most do not want overprocessed hair. Grey hair is accepted, although Locks of Love says they will sell grey hair donations.
Wait, they sell the donated hair?
Some organizations do sell some of the donated hair. This is in part the result of donations that arrive from many sources – individuals, hair salons, grassroots groups hosting “cut your hair” events in honor of someone undergoing chemotherapy treatments, etc. – and many of those sources send locks that cannot be used in hair systems (i.e., those failing the criterion listed above). Proceeds from those sales help with expenses associated with manufacturing the wigs that are used, as well as organizations’ administrative expenses.
The sold hair is purchased by commercial wig makers (some make shorter style wigs), to certain industries that use hair to make products (including booms used in oil leak clean up, because hair is sufficiently absorbent), and (if chemical free) for use in soil amendments and composting as well as scientific research. Human hair can also be used to create industrial filters and textiles used for insulation.
Charity watchdog groups have been called upon to investigate the legitimacy of hair-donation organizations. All have 501c3 (non-profit) tax status, and as such are required to make their accounting public. The problem is hair donations lack units of monetary measurement, so tracking donations isn’t the same thing as tracking dollar donations. Audits cannot definitively determine how much hair is used for wigs and how much for other purposes.
Synthetics are getting so good donations may no longer be needed
Proctor and Gamble created Pantene Beautiful Lengths around 2006, which provided hair and wigs through the American and Canadian Cancer Societies for a dozen years. But they closed the program at the end of 2018. In a statement they said “we are able and committed to meet the future real hair wig needs of the [individuals served by the two cancer societies] for the next four years…synthetic hair technology has vastly improved, giving synthetic hair wigs more of a ‘real hair’ feel, making them lighter, cooler to wear, and easier to style … [the synthetic wigs] are now the preferred wig choice for cancer patients.”
So while that might be what happens to the other hair donation organizations, there are still uses for cut human hair. In our reduce-reuse-recycle world, let’s hope less of that hair goes to landfills and more to productive, useful purposes.