Donating Hair for People With Cancer

Woman holding her hair that she plans to donate
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If you've heard that you can donate your hair to benefit women and children with cancer, you're correct. There are several organizations that welcome donations of hair, but these organizations may have different requirements and may use the donations for different causes. Some of these agencies offer wigs to women going through cancer treatment. Others use hair donations for children with any kind of illness which results in hair loss. The requirements for donating hair also vary between agencies, with different organizations accepting different lengths, but many exclude hair that is been permed or colored.

Giving Back

If you've watched a loved one go through cancer treatment, or if you've gone through cancer treatment yourself, you may have felt an urge to "give back." If you consider the financial drain, you may wish to help by engaging in fundraising or donating money. However, if you wish to make non-monetary contributions, donating your hair may be an option. Let's take a look at what you need to know before you grow your hair out, or cut off those beautiful locks.

Advantages of Wigs

One of the most dreaded side effects of cancer treatment is hair loss, whether due to chemotherapy-induced hair loss or as a side effect of radiation therapy to the brain. For both men and women, hair can play a role in your self-image.

A benefit of wigs (in contrast to other head covers) is how a wig let's you walk through life feeling "normal." It's not a vanity thing, as many people first assume. When wearing a wig (and painted on eyebrows if needed), you can avoid the sympathetic looks...and sometimes the whispers.

There are certainly other head covers for hair loss from cancer treatment, such as hats and scarves that can be very attractive. Sometimes preventing hair loss from chemotherapy may even be possible, though it's not always effective, may be uncomfortable, and is not recommended for people with certain types of cancer.

Why Human Hair?

Both synthetic and human hair are used to make wigs. Human hair wigs look and feel more natural, but are also more difficult to care for and much more expensive. That said, they are a real treat for someone who is facing a life-threatening disease.

Cost of Wigs

A percentage of the cost of a wig is covered as a benefit under many private insurance plans. These require that you have a prescription from your oncologist for a "medical cranial prosthesis"—a fancy term that simply means "wig." If not, and if your medical deductions exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, a wig can qualify as a tax deduction for cancer patients.

Requirements for Hair Donation

The requirements for hair donation can vary, but in general:

  • Hair needs to be clean and dry and placed in a braid or ponytail before it is cut.
  • Only your natural hair is accepted; no hair extensions, dreadlocks, or wigs.
  • Your ponytail or braid needs to be a certain length to be accepted. Curly hair can be pulled straight to make the measurement.
  • Some organizations accept gray hair, and some do not.
  • Some organizations accept bleached hair, but highlighted hair is usually not accepted.
  • Some organizations accept hair that has been permed, whereas others do not.
  • For privacy purposes, donors are not linked up with recipients. (It usually takes donations from several people to create one week, so every donation is extremely important.)
  • Most organizations allow you to have your hair cut at your regular stylist and then sent to their location.
  • Many of these organizations will give you a certificate for donating your hair.

Organizations That Accept Donated Hair

General requirements for hair donation are discussed above. A few of the specific requirements for different agencies are discussed below, and more information is available at the websites. Make sure to carefully read through all of the requirements before cutting your hair. You may also wish to contact the organization with further questions about who will receive the wigs, and whether the wigs are provided free of cost.

  • Locks of Love: Locks of love helps provide hair replacement for children who have suffered from medical hair loss. They accept hair that is at least 10 inches long in a braid or ponytail. They do accept gray hair, which is sold to help defray their costs, as well as hair that has been permed and hair that is colored (but not bleached). 
  • Pantene Beautiful Lengths: Beautiful Lengths is a program sponsored by Pantene and the American Cancer Society. They provide wigs for women who have experienced hair loss from the treatment of any form of cancer. Their minimum length is lower than some other organizations at 8 inches. Hair may be colored with vegetable dyes, rinses, or semi-permanent dyes, but not permanent dyes or bleaches.
  • Children With Hair Loss: This organization also provides hair replacement for all children with medical hair loss and requires only 8 inches of hair. Gray hair is accepted, though they prefer non-chemically treated hair. 
  • Wigs For Kids: This organization provides wigs for kids who are living with cancer, as well as those who are suffering from alopecia. They require 12 inches of hair, but recommend that you have 14 inches to spare.
  • Chai Lifeline: This organization requires 14 inches of hair, and provides wigs to children with cancer.
  • HairWeShare: This organization is newer on the scene (2014) and provides wigs for people who have medical conditions that cause hair loss, such as cancer and burns. They require only 8 inches of hair, and accept hair that has been dyed (but not highlighted).

Oh No! What If You Cut Your Hair and It Wasn't Enough?

This can happen, but if it happens to you, don't despair. Your hair won't be used to make a wig for a cancer patient, but it can still be used for good. Matter of Trust is an organization that accepts donated hair—as little as 3 inches—to help clean up oil spills and such.

Support and Advocacy for Cancer

Hair donations are just one method by which people can support those living with cancer. If you are looking for a much needed and worthy cause, awareness and funding for lung cancer lags far behind that of some other cancers, even though lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the United States.

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