These days, fake hair is everywhere. From the clip-in ponytails that litter high street accessory stores to the ‘premium’ extensions peddled by whoever’s hair looked best on the last season of Love Island, fake hair’s supply and demand are both bigger than ever.
It’s easy to see why, too — as celebrities and stylists began to up about their use of hair extensions, weaves and wigs in the age of beauty tutorials, ‘normal’ women realized the photos they had been handing over to hairdressers as ‘inspiration’ were even less realistic than they imagined. Yet, as a silver lining, almost more achievable.
Rather than being limited in length, volume or style, fake hair meant women could have whatever they wanted.
And thus, we did. Hair extensions not only became a wanton weapon of the everywoman’s beauty arsenal (case in point), but a growing industry with an estimated annual sales of $250 million to over $1 billion.
Based on a 2018 Research and Markets report, the global hair wigs and extension market is now expected to reach revenues of over $10 billion by 2023.
Unfortunately, all hair is not created equal.
While some customers opt for synthetic hair (typically made of plastic fibre blends which mimic natural hair, but are not recyclable or biodegradable), the gold standard is human hair. It can be styled like normal hair, dyed like normal hair, washed like normal hair, and worn for years – if properly cared for.
Only, the human hair industry is largely unregulated.
What we do know is that most human hair comes from Russia, Ukraine, China, Peru, and India. Countries where women could feasibly earn more than their monthly salary by selling hair to cash-rich Westerners. But that isn’t always the case.
Many companies – in fact, most American hair extension companies I’ve come across – actually source their hair from Indian temples where religious devotees participate in ritual head shaving. The practice, called ‘tonsuring’, results in a temple floor filled with loose hair. From there, the hair is typically collected by ‘temple sweepers’ (hired directly by human hair sellers) or sold at auction.
Some hair extension companies, like Woven Hair, even tout their $239 temple hair as an ‘ethically sourced’ virtue. And ‘remy’, at that.
But that takes some more explaining.
“Bad hair has gone through so many processes in a short space of time that it often barely resembles how it was when it was first donated,” says Sarah McKenna, founder of hair extension specialist salon Vixen & Blush. “In fact, when packaged, bad hair is most likely from thousands of people rather than just one.”
She explains that some of the human hair being sold to consumers even comes from salon floors and brushes. Hair, importantly, that is already pretty low-quality. Typically, collected hair gets pooled in a large vat of bleach, stripped of its cuticle completely, and coloured to a desirable shade.
“This hair is now labelled as ‘non-remy’, meaning that the cuticle is disrupted and not in its original root-to-tip direction, and needs heavy machinery to untangle it.
“Often the final shade is prone to fading simply because the cheap industrial dyes leak out of the open cuticle. The hair will end up a funny shade of orange, or maybe even green – the undertone of the cheap dye.”
Some brands even throw clumps of synthetic hair in with silicone-coated collected hair to increase their profit margin, still claiming the product is human hair.
For her own hair salon, McKenna wanted to source the highest-quality virgin (unprocessed) hair possible, so went to extreme efforts to visit the places and people who could do so ethically.
Eight years later, she not only fits the most gorgeous, true-to-colour hair extensions in her own salons but distributes the hair to hand-picked specialists as The London Hair Lab.
And still, she’s the only UK customer who works with her single-source Russian supplier. “We have visited every year. Their collection team travels to rural areas to collect donated hair and we know the routes and locations.
“The hair is paid for and is a vital part of the local economy. Younger people can sell their hair and make money to help their families.”
Sourcing human hair is a micro-economy of its own, and that’s exactly why ethically-sourced hair will never come cheap. Great suppliers – god, even good suppliers – should be sourcing hair from people who want to sell it, paying those people well, and treating their donations like gold.
According to McKenna, if a salon is offering a full head of micro ring hair extensions for less than £450 ($580) then it is likely because the hair being used is of poor quality.
“In a high street salon the cost you see is a total for both the product and the service,” she says. “The cost of the hair doesn’t change from city to city but the charge for labour does.
“For a Full Head of 18-inch micro ring hair extensions you could see prices up north of £600 ($780) for good quality hair. In London, it is more likely to be £750 ($970).”
To choose the best hair extensions as a consumer, McKenna believes the safest bet is always heading to a trained professional with knowledge to share. It’s the reason she has made The London Hair Lab a salon-only extension brand.
In fact, partnered salons need a minimum of three expert stylists offering hair extension services in the salon before she will consider sharing the hair. “These salons invest the time and money in training the staff and also have a critical mass of regular clients, so they properly hone their skills. Doing hair extensions once a month in a village salon is not enough to become proficient.”
And, as an added bonus, it puts no strain on her ethically-sourced supply.
As well as her Central and Shoreditch-based Vixen & Blush salons, The London Hair Lab’s hair is only fitted by hair prodigies and prestigious salons — Samantha Cusick, Daniel Granger, Hari’s, Hershesons, and Leo Bancroft, to name but a few.
“I do feel the throwaway culture that pervades culture is something that should be tackled,” McKenna concludes, and boy is she setting the standard.