Bonnie Mohagen didn’t want a wig with much fuss, just something she could slip on for dressier occasions.
Something on hand for church or anniversary gatherings. Something she could reach for after her own brown hair started falling out by the handful in July — “one of the worst things,” she said, about her recent battle with cancer.
So Mohagen, like a growing number of adults faced with medical hair loss, opted for a synthetic wig after hearing it was easier to care for than one crafted from real hair.
As synthetic wigs win more admirers, a hugely popular national program that offers real-hair wigs for free is winding down its efforts to collect the donated ponytails needed to make them — news that has set the local hair donation community abuzz.
Since 2006, the Pantene Beautiful Lengths program has worked in concert with the American and Canadian cancer societies and turned ponytails into more than 111,000 free, real-hair wigs for women undergoing cancer treatment in North America.
Now Pantene officials have announced that they will stop accepting ponytails after Dec. 31, having amassed enough donations to satisfy demand for real-hair wigs for the next four years. People hoping to donate their lengthy tresses to those in need will soon have to look elsewhere.
“The fact that we have enough donations for four years is incredible,” said Erin Noel, communications director for the American Cancer Society in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. “That’s a tremendously successful metric.”
For years, lopping off locks has been a popular way for schoolkids and adults to give back, with celebrities often documenting their donations on social media. Some Twin Cities salons offer free haircuts to those snipping for charity.
The American Cancer Society, which has three Minnesota offices, typically provides more than 500 real-hair and synthetic wigs annually to women across the state by working with local and national partners like Pantene Beautiful Lengths.
That’s how Mohagen secured her synthetic wig for free, months before she began losing her hair.
“I thought it was more comfortable,” said Mohagen, 71, who traveled from Grafton, N.D., to Minneapolis for radiation treatment and chemotherapy. “I didn’t want to think of having to curl it.”
As the technology improves, synthetic hair wigs boast more of a “real-hair feel” while also being cooler to wear, lighter and easier to style, Pantene officials said.
Many women who step inside the It’s Still Me wig studio in St. Louis Park arrive without much wig know-how.
That’s where owner Jan Strassburg, a breast cancer survivor, comes in with the pros and cons.
Having once lost her signature auburn curls during cancer treatment, Strassburg knows that hair holds a potent power over self-image, often treated as a symbol of wellness and beauty.
“Your hair is very much an identity thing,” she said.
Synthetic wigs, she tells clients, come in a growing array of colors and hip styles that often move and look just like human hair. Their easy care means no-fuss, “shake and go” styling.
“Synthetic has come a long way,” Strassburg said. “They don’t have to be the 90-year-old grandma wigs. They’re anything but.”
Real hair, she said, is more durable and safe for curling irons and blow dryers. Many synthetic wigs are made of plastic, meaning they can melt in high heat and get fuzzy from too much friction.
But human hair wigs are pricier. At Strassburg’s studio, human hair wigs can cost from $1,300 to more than $3,000, while synthetic counterparts typically range from $200 to $700, she said.
Given cost and convenience, the vast majority of customers opt for synthetic, Strassburg said. But age plays a crucial role, with younger people usually favoring human hair.
Unlike Pantene’s program, which focuses on adult women battling cancer, Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids center their work around children.
“Those synthetic wigs are great for temporary wear, but it just wouldn’t be what a child needs for long-term hair loss,” said Madonna Coffman, president of Locks of Love, which provides between 250 and 350 free custom hairpieces each year to children.
Unlike a wig, which may be held in place by double-sided tape or glue, Locks of Love hair prostheses are fitted with a custom mold and secured by a vacuum seal — crucial for kids on the go, Coffman said.
“Not only can it not fall off, it can’t be pulled out,” she said.
Real hair is also better suited for braiding, swimming with friends, curling hair for prom or flat ironing, said Jeffrey Paul, executive director for Wigs for Kids, a nonprofit he founded with his wife, Zina, in the early 1980s. “Human hair gives them all the options they would have with their normal hair,” Paul said.
And demand is growing. Wigs for Kids expects to create more than 500 free real-hair pieces this year and about 700 next year, compared with about 380 in 2017, Paul said.
The longer the ponytails the better, with kids often wanting 12 to 18 inches of hair — lengths that can be tough to come by, he said.
The huge appetite for long hair stirs high praise for repeat donors like Marti Estey of Roseville, who has cut her fast-growing locks for charity four times. Her record is 16 inches.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Estey took a deep breath and plopped down in a chair inside Bangbang salon in south Minneapolis, ready for her latest chop. Her stylist separated her thick hank of hair into smaller ponytails and began cutting, each scissor stroke making a crisp crunch.
Minutes later, Estey, a 39-year-old real estate agent, clutched her bouquet of ponytails and thought about her own breast cancer diagnosis from last year.
“You don’t know when it’s going to come back around to you,” she said.
Before Mohagen began her cancer treatment earlier this year, she held out hope that maybe her hair would survive.
But the American Cancer Society helped her pick out a wig just in case. In the end, the retired bookkeeper settled on a synthetic one shaped in a short, brown style — similar to her own.