Photography by Grant Walsh
Confession: I am a beauty editor who hadn’t had a haircut in three years.
Was this due to laziness? Not exactly. It was because I’d committed to donating hair, as thousands of people do every year. And while there were some frustrations along the way—countless clogged shower drains, for example—I’d grown quite attached to my long locks, and was more than a little nervous for the day I’d have to suddenly chop them all off.
But when that day finally arrived the nerves came and went. Scroll on to see pics of my big transformation. And, if you’re wondering how to donate hair yourself, I outlined everything I learned to help you decide if you’re ready to make the chop.
Understand that you’ll have to commit more than just time. It’s not as simple as abstaining from haircuts. You can’t donate colored hair, so dying and chemically treating your hair isn’t allowed, and heat styling should be kept to a minimum as well. Avoiding the blow-dryer, curling iron, or flatiron for that long is impossible for many people—including me—so deep conditioners and heat protectant sprays are essential.
Even with these precautions there were other issues. By the time I was ready for my cut, my hair was shedding like crazy. But it was still so heavy, I couldn’t wear a ponytail without getting a headache. I had to leave it down almost all the time, even at the gym.
Not all hair can be donated. Unfortunately, many donations have to be thrown out because they don’t meet the strict requirements for wig-making. As noted above, hair that’s been colored, bleached, or chemically treated can’t be donated, nor can hair that is more than 5% gray.
Of course, the biggest question most people have about donating hair is: “how long does your hair have to be to donate?” Most organizations require at least 10 inches, completely dry and bundled securely into a ponytail or braid. Any hair that doesn’t meet these specifications will likely be tossed out, making all those years of growth for naught. Luckily, most donation organizations post their requirements online. Follow them to the letter if you want to ensure your hair makes the, ahem, cut.
The most popular place for donating hair is probably Locks of Love, a nonprofit that creates hairpieces for children with hair loss from medical conditions such as alopecia areata. But there are a number of others, making it easy to choose a cause close to your heart. I wanted to donate hair for cancer patients, so I went with Pantene Beautiful Lengths, which works with the American Cancer Society to provide wigs to women suffering from the disease. Pantene’s program requires a shorter minimum donation (8 inches as opposed to the standard 10), so I felt there was a better chance my hair would be useable once the dead ends had been snipped away.
Even if you don’t have a lot of hair to donate, there may still be a need for it. Some eco-friendly groups, such as Clean Wave, collect small quantities to sew into mats used to help clean up oil spills.
It’s also freeing. In the days leading up to my big cut, I was so excited about not having to vacuum hair off my floors (and couch and backpack and walls) it left no room for anxiety. Until I actually sat in the stylist’s chair and heard her scissors start to snip.
But the moment she cut all the way through my ponytail and handed it to me, all that anxiety just faded into complete relief. It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, literally and metaphorically. Not only did I feel lighter, but more carefree knowing I would no longer have to sit around my apartment for two hours waiting for my hair to dry.
Plus, a salon visit can be pretty relaxing. It’s easy to think of a haircut in strictly practical terms, especially when you haven’t been to a salon in three years. But at Ruby Room, an award-winning salon in Chicago’s Wicker Park, the staff reminded me how pampering a haircut can be. My stylist, Theresa, massaged my scalp like an angel, and even spritzed me with a chakra-balancing aromatherapy spray called Be Free—a blend of rosemary and tea tree oil that helps release stagnation. (Fairly appropriate considering I had just unburdened myself of 10 inches of hair.)
It also helps to think about the “after.” Going without a real haircut for three years left me clueless as to what style I wanted. I Googled “lob” and “shag” and “long layers” but found so many different variations I was overwhelmed.
Luckily, Theresa and my other stylist, Katie, were great at taking a few disconnected photos and adapting them into a cut that worked for me. Theresa also taught me that there’s more to a good consultation than pictures—she asks her clients how they’d like their hair to move.
“Some people want a bob that holds its shape all day so they don’t have to worry about it keeping its style, while other people want something more natural that shakes and bounces,” she said. “So they’re both bobs, but the movement makes all the difference."
Thanks in part to a styling lesson. I’ve always curled my hair from the bottom-up, clamping my ends around the barrel and winding up to the root. And I’ve normally gotten a lot of compliments on my curled hair—so I was totally shocked when Katie curled by new lob by starting in the middle of each section.
This technique left the ends a little less polished, giving my hair that tousled I-woke-up-like-this look. Katie also showed me how alternating the direction of the curls (one towards the face, one away from the face) helped add movement.
Plus, it turns out that healthy hair is better than any hair color. I wasn’t expecting this. By the time Theresa and Katie were finished, my hair was so shiny, everyone in the salon was remarking about how it looked like I had highlights. It made me appreciate my hair and its natural color in a way I hadn’t for a long time, making my hair donation as good for me as it will (hopefully) be for someone else.