Is hair biodegradable or nonbiodegradable?

This blog post will discuss the question, “is hair biodegradable or non-biodegradable?” and will cover issues related to it such as the types of hair which are biodegradable, the longevity of the entire process of decomposition and its impact on the environment.

Is hair biodegradable or nonbiodegradable?

Yes, hair is biodegradable. Hair is composed of proteins and proteins are always subjected to biodegradation. This statement entails that yes, hair is biodegradable. Once biodegraded the hair is broken down into its three prime components which are:

  • Nitrogen
  • Sulfur
  • Carbon

But it is not as simple as it sounds, the reason being the complex composition of the hair and the conditions it requires to be biodegraded. If the favorable conditions are not met, it takes several years for the hair to be degenerated naturally. 

The conditions that are required for the hair to become biodegradable are:

  • Temperature
  • Optimum Environment such as proper sunlight and fresh air

Despite hair being biodegradable in nature, due to the slow rate of degeneration hair do end up adding in the landfills and blocking the waterways. All of this can be avoided by efficiently managing waste management.

What does research say about hair biodegradation?

Different scientific research supports the notion that hair of all types are prone to biodegradation. 

One of the key features that define mammals is the presence of hair on their bodies. Hair helps the mammals in maintaining the temperature of their bodies during harsh weather. Hair growth is a continuous process in mammals and keeps on going until they die. 

The major structure that forms the hair is a coiled coil protein – keratin which is extremely strong in nature. The proteins found in the hair form chemical bonds which make the hair resistant to quick biodegradation. 

Biodegradation is a natural process where a compound is degenerated naturally with the help of microbes. 

These microbes release specific enzymes which break down the complex compounds into their prime components. In the case of hair, due to strong chemical bonds they are resistant to these enzymes and therefore they take several years to degenerate. 

However, under favorable environmental conditions, such as invasive plant growth, moisture and soil the process of degeneration is influenced and  the hair ends up decaying faster than usual. This in turn provides three main elements to the environment which are nitrogen, carbon and sulfur. 

Are all hair biodegradable?

Yes, all type of hair are biodegradable. Human hair comes in several types and textures such as curly hair, straight hair, coil hair and wavy hair and all of them can be biodegraded under optimal conditions.

Similarly hair from animals such as cats and dogs can also be biodegraded and since they are rich in nitrogen, they can prove to be a very efficient compost. 

How does hair decompose in soil?

Hair is mainly decomposed in the soil as most of the mammals waste end up in the soil in one way or another. 

It is crucial to know how the soil plays a part in the process of biodegradation under natural conditions. Soil contains several microbes which are actively playing a part in biodegradation. 

When hair ends up in soil they are also subjected to biodegradation.  According to research it takes almost two years for the hair to be completely biodegraded. 

As mentioned earlier the rate of decomposition is influenced by several natural factors, the process of hair biodegradation is faster in the soil which is warm and moist as compared to the soil which is cold and dry. If the conditions are unfavorable it will take eons for the hair to biodegrade. 

Can hair become a compost?

Yes, hair can become a compost. Hair has the characteristics to become a very good compost because it comprises of nitrogen, carbon and sulfur. 

Composting is the best way to dispose of hair as it will prove to be an effective fertilizer and will eventually prevent organic waste products from entering the landfill. 

Hair adds the natural green nitrogen rich component to the compost while carbon adds the brown component. If composted perfectly, hair can prove to become a better replacement for herbicides and other fertilizers. 

To make a compost a balanced amount of hair should be added to other organic materials. The compost should be aerated in order to prevent the clumps and to influence decomposition water should be added. 

An uncompsted hair can also be used as a fertilizer because it will slowly add nitrogen to the soil and will provide structural support to the plant roots and help in breaking down complex soil. 

Is hair recyclable?

Yes, hair is recyclable. Because of its slow rate of biodegeration, hair does pose an environmental hazard. In order to prevent hair from causing environmental damage, they should be recycled. 

Research shows that recycling of hair can be done by numerous ways, some of them are as under:

  • Making of wigs: Barbers can use hair to make wigs. Over the years the demand for hair wigs and extensions have increased.  Human hair wigs look the most natural in appearance and can help people who are suffering from severe hair loss or undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Making of fabrics: In several regions people weave hair to turn them into fabrics.
  • Protecting the plants: Hair can be used to protect the plants from pests, human hair can be transformed into hair mats to keep the pests away from plant fields. This can help in preventing the use of pesticides on plants and making them more organic. 
  • Making of surgical products: Hair contains a protein called keratin. The same protein which is extremely strong and slows down the rate of biodegradation. 

For this reason hair can be used as a promising alternative for sutures in surgical products. They can also be used as suture threads for facial wounds because of its extremely thin diameter. 

  • Making of artwork: Scandinavian countries would use hairwork as a potential artwork in the 19th century. This hairwork included intricate jewelry, buttons, flowers etc. finely chopped hair dissolved in oil was used as a paint. 

Even though this type of artwork had died down recently it is being revived to promote hairwork artists globally. 

  • Making of medicines: several countries and regions around the globe are using hair to formulate ethnomedicines. For instance hair ash is used in India to treat wounds as they provide immediate pain relief and long term recovery. 
  • Oil spill remedy: because hair has high affinity for oil it can be used in oil spill remediation methods. By wringing out the hair oil can be recovered and later these oily hair can be used to grow oyster mushrooms which eventually decomposes the oil. The leftover hair can then be composted. 

What kind of hair is detrimental to the environment?

Synthetic hair is detrimental to the environment. Synthetic hair are artificially made hair using man-made elements such as;

  • Acrylic
  • Vinyl
  • Silicone
  • Silk
  • PVC
  • Polyethylene -terephthalate
  • polyester

Synthetic hair is primarily sold in the form of wigs and hair extensions and since they are relatively cheaper as compared to the wigs and hair extensions made by using natural hair they are being sold in heaps. 

The synthetic hair impacts the environment negatively as they are non-biodegradable. Polyester, PVC and vinyl contain plastic and plastic is one of the biggest substances responsible for land pollution. 

A lot of companies which are environmentally aware are now striving towards making wigs and hair extensions which are natural so they do not impact the environment negatively. 

Frequently asked questions: Is hair biodegradable or nonbiodegradable

What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable products?

There is one major difference between biodegradable and compostable products. 

The difference between them is that the compostable products are accustomed to a certain balance of factors that are needed to break them properly while the biodegradable products are broken down naturally. 

Compostable products take more time if the environment is air locked and there is very less or no oxygen. However, biodegradable products and compostable products do break down over time.

Are hair, nails and bones compostable or biodegradable?

Yes hair, nails and bones are biodegradable and compostable. Hair and nails comprises proteins and are biodegradable as well as compostable (if needed) in nature. 

On the other hand bones are compostable in nature, the proteins and fats in the bones will biodegrade but the calcium compounds in the bones need to be subjected to chemical or mechanical weathering. 

If hair is poorly biodegradable or takes a long time to biodegrade, why is it not seen everywhere?

Despite its slow rate of biodegradation, hair is not seen everywhere in piles or heaps mainly because it is recycled. The hair can be recycled into compost, wigs and hair extensions, fabrics, anti-pests mats, pharmaceuticals and cosmetic industry. 

For this reason they are not seen everywhere simply because they prove to be a valuable recyclable product.

Is human hair good for plants?

Yes, human hair is very good for plants because as they degenerate in the soil, they take the form of nitrogen, carbon and sulfur, all of the elements needed for the plant growth and sustainability. The human hair can also be used to anchor and provide support to the plant roots.

Can human hair be used in pharmaceuticals?

Yes , human hair can be used in pharmaceuticals. Human hair contains proteins and proteins are made up of small building blocks called amino acids. 

These amino acids are very crucial in nature and can be extracted from hair through a particular process called hydrolysis of hair. Some of the amino acids found in hair can be used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetic industry. 

For instance one particular amino acid is responsible for wound healing. Another one is responsible for treating chest congestion and actinominphen poisoing. 

Can all hair types be used in pharmaceuticals?

No, not all hair types can be used in pharmaceuticals. As mentioned in the post, there are various hair types and textures. Each hair type and texture, despite having the same composition, is structurally different. 

For this very reason not all hair types will be proved beneficial to the pharmaceutical industry. Out of all the hair types black hair has more cystine – an amino acid found in proteins. Cystine plays a very prominent role in the pharmaceutical industry. 

What are other uses of hair?

Hair has many other uses. 

  • Hair can be used as nesting materials along with other fibers to increase the breeding of birds especially in the regions where their population is declining. Short hair is recommended to form the nests as long hair can potentially harm the birds. 
  • Because of its high tensile strength, hair is also being used to make ropes to lift heavy beams and belts in the construction of temples in Japan. 
  • Hair is also used to stuff toys, mattresses and various household items in various countries because of their elastic and thermal insulation properties. 
  • Hair hygrometers are scientific instruments and are used to measure humidity. 
  • Human hair because of their high friction coefficient is being used to reinforce clay based constructions. 
  • The amino acids obtained from hair are being used in the food industry as well. The amino acids are extracted and are used as leavening agents and flavoring agents. However, the use of human hair in the food industry is a big source of concern in various countries. 

References: 

  • Ankush Gupta, “Human Hair “Waste” and Its Utilization: Gaps and Possibilities”, Journal of Waste Management, vol. 2014, Article ID 498018, 17 pages, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/498018
  • Pay, I. (2021, October 22). Is hair biodegradable? Waste Nil. Retrieved From
  • Greenorb. (2021, May 2). Is human hair biodegradable? Thinking Sustainably. Retrieved From

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?

Leave a Comment