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Our long pandemic hair is finally getting cut — and hair donation charities are overwhelmed

Donated hair sits on a bin at the Martino Cartier Studio in Sewell, N.J., on April 20. Cartier founded Wigs & Wishes, a nonprofit that gives away wigs to those who need it. (Hannah Yoon for The Washington Post)
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Diane Brewer couldn’t enjoy her pandemic hair. Her strawberry-blonde locks, which typically grazed her shoulder blades, now flowed to her waist for the first time since elementary school — which would have been an enviable look in a more normal time. But no one ever saw it. She had zero special occasions on her calendar, and at the Denver hospital where she works as a nurse anesthetist, “Everybody had to wear scrub caps all the time. So nobody saw my hair. It was always in a bun and under the cap,” said Brewer, 47.

She yearned for a haircut, but she didn’t want to undertake the exposure risk of going to a salon. Then she had an epiphany. She waited until March, three months after she was vaccinated for the coronavirus, to visit a hair salon. She walked out with a short bob and a Ziploc baggie containing 14 inches of braids, which she plans to donate to a charity that might be able to use it for a wig.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the needs of others more visible, motivating some Americans to give what they can. And even in a year when many are struggling financially, one thing they can still give, after a year with no haircuts, is hair. As a result, charities that turn donated hair into wigs have been swamped in recent months.

Many of us saw pandemic hair as a borderline-annoying predicament. A test of vanity. Others, like Brewer, saw their newfound abundance of hair in a different way: as an opportunity to do good.

Suzanne Chimera is co-founder of the Long Island-based Hair We Share, which makes wigs out of donated hair and provides them at no cost to adults and children with medical hair loss. She started to see the uptick in interest at the start of the pandemic. “A lot of people in the beginning were saying, ‘Well, my salon is closed, and I just want to cut my hair now. So I’ll cut it and send it to you,’ ” Chimera said.

But salons would need the business as soon as they could reopen. So she and her team encouraged would-be donors to keep growing their hair out, and in the meantime start crowdfunding pages where friends and family could “sponsor” their future hair donation, with proceeds making up for Hair We Share’s canceled fundraising events.

Eventually the donation boom came once salons reopened. According to Chimera, Hair We Share’s individual hair donor base has increased about 230 percent over the last year.

More men are asking how they can donate their wild, unkempt hair once they can finally get haircuts, Chimera said. When she spoke to The Washington Post in mid-April, six men had reached out about donating their hair in the past 24 hours. “Before, we didn’t get six men in a month,” she said.

Often, Chimera has to explain to them that hair donations need to be, at minimum, eight inches long. “With eight inches of hair, we only end up with a four- to six- inch wig, and most of the people getting wigs are women and young girls. Most of them want long hair,” Chimera explained. When she asks the men if they can hang in there for one or two more months, a surprising amount of them do.

Hair We Share has also been receiving more gray-hair donations than usual — it’s one of the few charities that accepts them.

Founder Martino Cartier’s New Jersey-based Wigs & Wishes assembles its wigs for cancer patients on-site — which means its warehouse is, at present, overflowing with hair. It recently received two shipments from a Texas salon that, together, contained 90 pounds of hair — more than it usually receives in a month.

“Oh, my gosh. It looks like it looks like a carnival on the last day, after no one cleans it up,” said Cartier, who’s also a hair stylist and salon owner, with a laugh. “I’ve just got wigs everywhere. I got wigs in cabinets. On the countertop. In my office. I just — there’s just wigs, wigs, wigs.”

Inevitably some donations get thrown out. Hair that’s sent wet becomes too moldy, and sometimes hair is just too damaged from treatments. In 2007, the New York Times reported that at Locks of Love, perhaps the most recognizable hair-donation charity, most donations were unusable for wigs. (It did not respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment on pandemic hair donations.)

At Wigs & Wishes, some 90 percent of donated hair is eventually put into a wig, according to Cartier. At Hair We Share, an even larger amount gets used, and monetary donations are used to pay for the labor of making hair into wigs. (One wig requires about six hair donations, according to Chimera.)

The pandemic “made people want to help other people,” Chimera said. “Growing their hair was a way that they could do it while still quarantining.”

Some young women embraced their gray hair during the pandemic. They might not go back.

The charities that spoke to The Washington Post for this story said their monetary donations had risen too. “Some people, when they get some of their stimulus money, they decide to make a small donation to us,” said Regina Villemure, founder of Children With Hair Loss, which is based in South Rockwood, Mich., and provides wigs to kids and adults with hair loss from medical causes. “Because it’s like, ‘You know what, our family’s okay. Maybe we need to help another family.’ ”

Like Brewer, Jerika Nguyen, a 28-year-old pharmacist in Grand Rapids, Mich., spent most of 2020 and early 2021 growing her hair out. (“My friends were saying, ‘Your hair’s down to your butt now!’ ”) In March, she donated nine inches of her hair to Children With Hair Loss, one of the few charities that would accept her highlighted hair.

Nguyen compared the experience to the first time she donated blood — in late 2016, after a tumultuous year. “I decided to donate blood for the first time in 2016, which, I’m sure you remember, was a very tumultuous year, with a presidential election and the Orlando shooting and Brexit and zika and the Dakota Access Pipeline and, just everything,” Nguyen said. "Fast-forward to now, and I feel like it was kind of a similar thought process, where there’s no shortage of events and issues to care about. ... I was like, ‘What else can I do that’s tangible to bring a little bit more light into the world?’ And I’d already skipped going to the hair salon for so long,” she said.

For Brewer, the experience of donating hair will probably be a one-time thing. She’ll remember her long hair and then her very short hair as little more than amusing relics of a year she’d like to otherwise forget. But Nguyen thinks her donation could be the first of several. With a laugh, she explained that the first time she ever cried over her hair was a year or so ago, after a bleaching job went awry. “And I just thought, if I was going to be dramatic about that, then think about how someone with complete hair loss feels.”

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