By Julia M. Chan, CNN
As people stay home and skip the salon or barbershop, some hair-focused non-profits are seeing one bright spot in the pandemic: more donated hair going to those who need it.
"Listen, there's never enough hair," said stylist Martino Cartier, founder of the New Jersey-based Wigs & Wishes, which makes free wigs for people with cancer. "We get donations every day and it's never enough, so this is definitely a silver lining for us."
Maggie Varney, founder of Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, says the extra ponytails and braids have been "one of the rainbows in the storm." This year set a new record amount of donations -- 487 -- for Sparrow Hospital's annual hair donation drive, many coming from first-time donors in new demographics such as boys and adults.
"I've had many of them say to me, 'I would never have thought of this if it wasn't for Covid,'" Varney told CNN.
And longer waits between cuts are turning into highly coveted longer donations, according to JoAn Nicely, founder of Pink Heart Funds in Mississippi. "We're getting 15-, 16-inch ponytails, which is fabulous, because most of the young girls that want wigs want long wigs," she said.
Need remains great
Even as the coronavirus pandemic enters its 10th month in the United States, the nonprofit founders report a welcome but endless stream of emails, calls and mail from interested donors. And that's a good thing, they say, since so many still need the help.
"Covid-19 put a halt across the entire world, but the one thing it didn't stop was cancer," said Nicely, whose nonprofit makes free wigs for children with hair loss disorders and gives free wigs and breast prosthetics to women with cancer. A cancer survivor herself, Nicely understands the urgency even during a global crisis. "The need is there -- doesn't matter how bad Covid is," she said.
Cartier agrees. "We're definitely helping more people than ever before," he said, adding that Wigs & Wishes is shipping about 50 wigs a day across the country and beyond. His location near many large oncology centers on the East Coast keeps him busy: On top of his regular client schedule, he also takes care of six to 10 cancer patients daily at his salon.
The need -- and the hope that hair provides -- keeps Varney working seven days a week. Slightly more than half of the children she serves have been diagnosed with cancer, while the rest have lost hair from alopecia, trichotillomania, lupus, blood disorders and dog bites.
"I don't care what age you are -- I get 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds that come in here, and I put those wigs on them and their smile and their heart just brightens up," said Varney, who makes free custom wigs or hairpieces for every child. "They look in the mirror and they recognize the person looking back at them."
Trim before you cut
If you're interested in donating your hair, proper maintenance is the first step. Cartier, a stylist for nearly three decades, recommends using a sulfate-free shampoo, "good" conditioner, and heat protectant for regular haircare. Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids also recommends using high-quality dryers and tools, regular brushing and limiting exposure to heat damage.
But most important of all is keeping your ends trimmed -- at least an eighth to a quarter inch every four to six weeks, according to Cartier. Regular trimming may sound counterintuitive at first, but he says breakage will happen anyway. "You don't cut it, it breaks," he said. "It cuts itself for you."
Nicely, a stylist for over 40 years, sees "a lot" of donated ponytails full of split ends, which unfortunately cannot be made into wigs.
"Think about it," she said. "Do you want a child to have a wig made out of extremely damaged hair?"
Different nonprofits have different requirements for donating hair, so it's crucial to read all the instructions before you cut.
For instance, the minimum length to donate can vary widely. Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan can take donations as short as seven inches to make short wigs that many boys prefer, but at least 10 inches is requested. Wigs & Wishes requires a minimum of 12 inches, while Pink Heart Funds requires 13 inches to meet the demand for longer wigs.
"People don't realize how much hair you really do need," Cartier said, especially "by the time you cut the split ends off, and by the time you tie a knot in it." It can take five to six donations to make one wig.
There may also be different rules when it comes to layered, colored and chemically processed hair, as well as the amount of gray hair permitted. Children's hair makes for ideal donations since it tends to be unprocessed and healthier.
How you gather your donation may also matter. Wigs & Wishes requires donations to be braided while Pink Heart Funds and Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan accept ponytails and braids.
All three nonprofits require hair donations to be clean, dry and placed in a sealable plastic bag. Wet or damp donations can breed mold or mildew and have to be thrown out.
Securing hair is also key, especially before cutting. Hair cannot be bundled after it has been on the floor. Donations need to be secured in more than one place in case a band breaks or hair shifts out of place in transit.
"It breaks my heart when I get a hair donation and it's dumped in a bag and it's all loose hair because they can't use it," said Varney, a licensed cosmetologist with more than 40 years of experience. "The outer layer of the hair shaft is like shingles on a roof, so if it's turned all different ways," she said, "that wig will mat and tangle." It ultimately makes the wig too hard to maintain, especially for kids.
And you don't have to be in the United States to help. All three charities accept hair donated from around the world. Pink Heart Funds has received donations from Ireland, Germany and the Philippines. Wigs & Wishes has a strong network of partnering salons in Europe and Australia. And Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan has counted donations from 62 countries in the last year, including France, Italy, Iraq and Iran.
Other ways to help
Wigs are expensive. Depending on how they're made, each wig can cost several hundred to several thousand dollars. Because these nonprofits give away their wigs for free and don't turn anyone eligible away, monetary donations are needed more than ever.
The pandemic has been a double whammy for charities, limiting their ability to fundraise while shrinking the donor base.
"That is what really kicked our butts," Nicely said, noting that financial donations for Pink Heart Funds are down 60 percent this year because many of her regular donors in the cosmetology industry have been out of work.
If hair and money are not options, there's also time. Varney says interest in donating hair to Maggie's Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan often leads to volunteering for the organization in other ways, ranging from sorting mail to styling wigs. Cartier says there's also a constant need for volunteers across the country for Wigs & Wishes, which is looking for help with its upcoming annual gala that will be held virtually.
While the world waits for an end to Covid-19, the founders also hope for an end to cancer, anticipating the need will remain long after coronavirus.
"We're not going anywhere," Cartier said. "So until they find the cure, we've got to just keep pushing and keep changing lives."