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The scissors snip together slowly making that unmistakable crunching sound, and 14 inches of hair that I spent two years growing are now gone.
But the strands didn’t just fall to the ground to get swept up and thrown away.
Instead, my hair is now on its way to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, an organization that partners with the American Cancer Society to distribute free wigs to cancer patients.
I have donated my hair to charity three times now. In my experience, donating your hair is a much more personal gift than sending a check to a charity. You’re sending a piece of yourself to a kid or adult who has a disease that’s caused them to lose their hair.
This time around, I still had some major questions about the process.
Where does my hair go once it’s cut off my head? Who gets the wigs? Who makes the wigs? Where do they make them? How many people can it help? Which organization is best?
Before I made that final cut, I found the answers. Here’s what I learned.
Which organization should I choose?
The first two times I donated my hair (I guess it’s a thing I do now), I sent it to Locks of Love. But hearing they sell wigs to make a profit gave me pause.
It turns out Locks of Love doesn’t charge kids for the wigs – but they do sometimes sell the hair if it’s too short or grey. Once I dug into why, though, it made sense.
“Shorter hair will be separated from the ponytails and sold to offset the manufacturing costs. Although the shorter hair cannot be used in the hairpieces, it still greatly helps to reduce costs,” the organization says on its website. “We can accept donations of gray hair. Because we only provide hairpieces to children, we cannot use this hair in a hairpiece but will sell it to offset our manufacturing costs.”
None of the three organizations I looked into charge recipients for wigs. They do have slightly different requirements and missions, though.
Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids both give their hair donations to kids with any medical hair loss, while Pantene Beautiful Lengths focuses on adult cancer patients. Here’s a breakdown of the three organizations:
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Deciding which organization to donate your hair to is a personal choice. I went with Beautiful Lengths this time because I wanted to help cancer patients.
Where does the hair go?
Once you send your hair in, the organizations process it and send it to a wig manufacturer.
A Pantene spokesperson told Business Insider that once Beautiful Lengths has enough hair donations at its collection location, they send a shipment to Hair U Wear, one of the largest wig manufacturers in the world.
Hair U Wear makes the wigs at its factory in Indonesia and then ships them back to Pantene, which gives the well-traveled hair to the American Cancer Society to distribute at its wig banks across the US.
Who gets the wigs?
Jessica Melore, 34, describes losing her hair as “an outward manifestation of being sick.” It’s a constant reminder that her body is fighting cancer – in the drain when she takes a shower, on her pillow when she wakes up.
She just finished chemotherapy for her third bout with cancer and said that getting a wig was an important boost for her wellbeing, making her feel like herself again.
“It’s a little bit of sadness like, ‘Oh there it goes, I’m on my way to being bald,'” Melore told Business Insider. “But you have that reassurance that the wig is there and you feel good about it.”
This time, before she lost her hair, Melore donated it and got a wig from the American Cancer Society all in the same day. She broadcast the experience on the via Facebook Live with the ACS:
Pantene partners with the American Cancer Society to distribute the donations at its 43 wig banks nationwide. The Beautiful Lengths program has given out 42,000 wigs made from 800,000 real hair donations since it began in 2006. (It takes about eight ponytails to make one wig.)
Patti Allen, the senior director of mission delivery for the ACS of New York and New Jersey, told Business Insider that while they have styles for both sexes, mostly women come in for wigs.
Each ACS wig bank across the country has a salon where cancer patients can come pick out a wig and have it individually tailored by a professional stylist just like Melore did.
“It’s not one size fits all. My hair is not like somebody else’s hair. We really try to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible,” Allen said. “It’s hard enough that they’re going through treatment that has altered their lifestyle. The wig is the least thing that we can do to try to make them feel a little bit better about what they’re going through.”
How can I donate?
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Each organization has slightly different donation requirements, which you can find on their websites.
Pantene takes non-dyed hair that’s less than 5% grey and at least 8 inches long. Locks for Love accepts hair that is grey or dyed (but not bleached) over 10 inches. Wigs for Kids will take grey, but not dyed, hair that is at least 12 inches long.
For all three, you can stretch curly hair out to reach the minimum length, but the shortest layers have to meet that number or they probably won’t be used.
Make sure you put the hair in multiple ponytails or rubber bands before you cut it so it stays together when you send it in.
The hair has to be completely dry before you send it, too, so it doesn’t get moldy. They have to throw hair away if it is.
Ask your hair salon if they will give you a discount or even cut your hair for free if you’re donating it (mine did!). Wigs for Kids has a search function on their website to find a salon that works with them.
How can I get a wig?
While many of the 650,000 cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy every year in the US are able to grow their hair back after they complete treatment, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that can cause permanent hair loss. Over 6.6 million Americans have alopecia or will get it at some point in their lives, according to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, and it often begins in childhood.
If you have cancer, alopecia, or another medical affliction that has caused you to lose your hair, reach out to the organizations to see if you can get a wig. Pantene is the only one of the three that offers wigs to adults, so keep that in mind if you need one and are over 18.
No matter which organization you choose, your hair can help someone who no longer has theirs.
“I had been familiar with the American Cancer Society through their fundraising activities and the research that they do,” Melore said. “But [it was comforting] to know that there was this whole other side that is dedicated to supporting you and making you feel like yourself, which is I think part of the whole experience, too, because it ties in with your whole sense of wellbeing. This is such a wonderful service.”