Written by Jennifer Billock
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Lea Ann Biafora
When my mom started chemotherapy, catalog after catalog of cancer wig options began to show up at her house. I flipped through the pages out of curiosity for the different styles and colors available to women with cancer around the country. But seeing page after page of chemo wigs made me wonder: What happens to a wig for cancer patients when they’re no longer in use?
Synthetic hair is essentially made of plastic, rendering it unsustainable. With the global wig and extension market projected to reach $10 billion by 2023, that’s a big contributor to our worldwide waste problem.
But you don’t have to be a part of the problem. You can help find a solution by making more conscious decisions about your hair. Check out the options below to help you make sustainable choices when finding—or disposing of—a wig.
When getting a wig…
Ethically Sourced Natural Human Hair
If you can afford the extra cost, consider getting a cancer wig made from human hair. They’re not the easiest to recycle when you’re done with them, but they definitely won’t stick around as pollution as long as synthetic wigs will.
Before you choose one, though, make sure it’s coming from an ethical source. Human hair is not always sourced through the most ethical means—women have been forced to shave their heads, and some manufacturers take hair from corpses.
Instead of going through a company that’s shady about the sourcing of their hair, look for one that’s straightforward about ethical practices and where they get their hair (ideally it’ll be donated from local residents), or go to a charity.
Although not many options currently exist for biodegradable wigs, Raw Society Hair is looking to change that. The Australian company sources hair material from banana trees in Uganda, taking fibers from the stem left behind after bananas are picked. Typically that part of the tree would end up in the compost pile, but using it to create eco-friendly hair means synthetic versions will be kept out of landfills. And when you’re done with it, you can just chuck it into the compost yourself.
The company currently only offers extensions, not an entire wig for cancer patients, but it’s a great option to spice things up in a socially responsible way.
When disposing of a wig...
Even though synthetic chemo wigs are, by and large, not eco-friendly, some options do exist for recycling them.
The Wig Station has a wig recycling program that works with the American Cancer Society (ACA); you send your cancer wig to them, and if it can be refreshed and revived, it’s sent back to the ACA wig bank for another patient. If the wig is beyond repair, it goes to recycling company TerraCycle. (You can also send your wig there yourself.) TerraCycle composts human hair wigs in soil and recycles synthetic hair into plastic polymers.
For another option, donate your human hair wig to Matter of Trust, a non-profit that turns natural hair fibers into felted mats that soak up oil and chemical pollutants after spills.
Whether your wig is synthetic or real, you can donate it to a wig exchange (also called a wig bank). These programs—which often run through hospitals or nonprofits—accept new or gently used wigs, wash and disinfect them, and help get them to the heads of people who might not be able to afford a wig otherwise.
Your donation should be tax deductible—plus, you get to help someone else in the process. It’s a win-win (win-wig?) all around!