Whose hair are you buying?

Britain buys £43 million worth of human hair a year. But it’s dismayingly hard to find out who it comes from

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

Perhaps you recall the moment in Les Misérables when Fantine chops off all her hair? The destitute young mother sells her long locks, then her teeth (a detail often excluded from child-friendly adaptations) before she is eventually forced into prostitution. It would be nice to think that her experience was no longer a reality, that the business of human hair had gone the way of the guillotine — but the truth is, it’s booming. The modern market for extensions made of real human hair is growing at an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported into the UK, padded out with a little bit of animal hair. That’s a thousand metric tons and, end to end, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if you prefer, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison with that of the US.

Two questions spring to mind: first, who is supplying all this hair and, secondly, who on earth is buying it? Unsurprisingly, both sides of the market are cagey. Nobody wants to admit precisely where they are importing hair from and women with extensions like to pretend their hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that the locks come from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in return for a blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the most-visited holy sites in the world, so there’s plenty of hair to flog.

Beyonce photographed in February and March of this year (Photo: Getty)
Beyonce photographed in February and March of this year (Photo: Getty)

This has been described as ‘happy hair’ — and it’s certainly an acceptable story to tell your client as you glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export large amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The reality behind this hair is probably a grim one. There are reports of female prisoners and women in labour camps being forced to shave their heads so those in charge can sell it off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no one can be sure that the hair’s original owner received a fair — or any — price.

It’s a strange anomaly in a world in which we’re all obsessed with fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems at all bothered about the origins of their extra hair. But then, the market is hard to regulate and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through a number of different countries, which makes it hard to keep tabs on. Then the branding comes in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The fact that some websites won’t disclose where their hair comes from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. A few ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but in most cases, the customer just doesn’t want to know where the hair is harvested. In the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are things like ‘How do I care for it’ or ‘How long will it last?’ rather than ‘Whose hair is it anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts that the hair ‘has been grown in the cold Siberian regions and has never been chemically treated’. Another site details how to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will turn to ash. It will smell foul. When burning, the human hair will show white smoke. Synthetic hair will be a sticky ball after burning.’ As well as not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.

The most expensive option is blonde European hair, a packet of which can fetch more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for one. Her hair collection was once estimated to be worth $1 million. And the Kardashians have recently launched a range of extensions under the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to give you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.

Near where I live in London, there are a number of shops selling all kinds of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which is hair that hasn’t been treated, rather than hair from virgins). Nearby, a local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair into the heads of women wanting to look like cast members from The Only Way Is Essex. My own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women asking for extensions to make them look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate might have used extensions, which is a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’

Human hair is a precious commodity because it takes time to grow and artificial substitutes are considered inferior. There are women willing to buy and there are women willing to sell, but given the size of the market it’s about time we found out where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine may have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now on a billion-dollar global scale.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Lara Prendergast is The Spectator’s online editor.

Show comments
  • blandings

    “Whose hair are you buying?”

    Grown your own – works for me.

    • Violin Sonata.

      Well you’ll know where it came from. Unlike recycled donated hair made in
      a hair factory within Eastern Europe or India.
      The hair could come from any Tom, D!(k or Harriet, you’ll never know,
      safer to grow your own, indeed.

      • Guest

  • James

    Real hair is great for violinists.

    • Violin Sonata.

      Very true James, it’d be impossible to play any composition without a swaying
      mane. I’ll assume that sister of yours appreciates music.

      • James

        Appreciates music is different to appreciating musical extremism.

        • Violin Sonata.

          You mean your sister likes, Neoclassical Dark Wave, or maybe
          Teutonic Trash Metal. I myself like a Finnish Rock Band but I
          don’t suppose you’ve heard of them.

          • James

            I guess that means I am missing out.

          • Violin Sonata.

            Not really, whatever floats your boat. I’m more of a classical and
            Jazz kind of girl but I like one rock band and don’t feel I’m missing out on the rest.

          • James

            I like X-Factor and Olly Murs.

          • Violin Sonata.

            As anyone ever made it in the crowded world of music after
            appearing on that show ? real talent and fame doesn’t come
            that easily.

          • James

            I bet Ryuichi Sakamoto would sell more tickets at the 02 but, Olly Murs was on the X-Factor and the music folks who schedule events these days are anti-music.

  • Three chords & the truth

    Shame I thought Beyonce’s hair was home grown.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Is there much of a market for the tight, curly, black stuff?

    • Not much. Apparently women today either trim it down or shave it off.

    • justsomeone

      I sell mine regularly, don’t you? I think they dye and press it to make carpets.

  • godot

    Remember when women were satisfied with their own fingernails? Now ‘beauty’ salons offer the acrylic ones that are stuck on, and they have become ubiquitous in western culture. Similarly, women that have quite acceptable hair of their own are increasingly glueing other people’s hair onto their heads. Of course tattoos and body piercing are also essential for well heeled women today. So much for progress.

  • Virgin Hair And Beauty

    Hi all, I’ve stumbled onto this article after looking for some industry news for Human Virgin Remy Hair Extensions. I started my online hair extensions business http://www.virginhairandbeauty.com after loosing quite a bit of my natural hair after child birth. Having worn extensions/braids for many years prior, finding real human hair was an exciting and natural progression for me. Hair pieces made from real Indian hair helped me cover up my trouble areas. With baby in one hand and laptop in another I decided to sell online to other women just like myself and from there the market grew and opened especially on the beauty side. For some its for beauty and fashion, for others its a necessity. We pride ourselves on offering high quality human hair to all women. We know and visit our suppliers and although many hair collectors and supplies will not disclose their sources which are ‘trade secrets’ we are confident that we work with some of the best in the world. As many will already know, real Indian hair direct from Indian temples is donated by thousands of women each year to raise funds and feed their local communities. You should expect to pay more for real European, Brazilian and Russian hair. We offer many types. The ethics is the difficult side but the buying power of the west does support and grow the economies of the rest of the world. Whilst women are happy to donate and or sell their hair, its a commodity that is now very much wanted and required all over the world.

  • Mr Creosote

    Hi Lara

    I’m still banned from the site!

  • Mr Creosote

    Yippee…I’m not!!

    Good hair article by the way!

  • Mr Creosote

    I spoke too soon – it appears I’m still banned from the Coffee House section!

  • Delhi Hair

    Pure Virgin Indian Hair http://www.indianhairexporter.com

  • Yes, it is hard to tell where the hair come from. But in a nutshell, low price hair always come with low quality. According to my experience in http://www.fabstrands.com who is a online remy hair vendor, the highest quality hair is from Ukraine.

  • Mohair

    The best quality of Human Hair is from the Russia, http://www.mohair.com

  • Katie

    Excellent quality Human Hair with awesome price in http://www.victoryxc.en.alibaba.com

  • Pretty

    very interesting analysis. Here is another view of hair industry and origins of hair https://www.prarvihair.com/blogs/hair-beauty-health

  • topnaturalhair

    Nice blog! Top Natural Hair company is focusing on the design and production of human hair wigs for black women related products, human hair is a precious commodity because it takes time to grow and artificial substitutes are considered inferior.