The True Cost of Hair Extensions
Have you ever thought about where hair extensions come from? The short answer is that they come from just about anywhere, and it’s not always a very pretty picture. Some cheaper hair extensions and wigs are made from synthetic materials and act as an imitation of human hair - like a wig you might use in a costume. Other manufacturers try to fool consumers into thinking they are buying quality hair when the brokers are actually passing off extensions and wigs made with hair that was swept up from salon floors, pulled out of sink drains, and yanked off of hairbrushes (yikes)! This cheapest tier of human hair is detangled, processed with chemicals, coated with silicone, and sometimes mixed with synthetic and animal hair in order to sell.
Now, I know you may be thinking:
Why are we talking about hair extensions on an anti-trafficking blog?
Stick with me; I’m getting there.
This cheap imitation of pure human hair seeks to imitate a high quality, harder-to-acquire product known as “virgin Remy.” Virgin hair is hair that has not been exposed to any chemicals and is collected from a single donor. Remy hair may have been colored or permed, but it still has an intact cuticle and strands that are all facing the same way. In other words, a product can be made of 100% human hair and still not be virgin Remy, but virgin Remy extensions are definitely all human hair and use hair that has been gathered from a single source who treated their hair naturally and never used any chemicals, dyes, or other additives.
The finer and more unique the hair, the higher the cost. The more niche the hair type, the greater chance that the women who naturally possessed it will be exploited. Refinery29 has a very informative video covering just how exploitative the hair extension industry can be. In the video, several stylists readily admit to their ignorance about the supply chain. In trying to meet the increased demand for hair extensions, few stylists take the time to make sure that the hair is fairly sourced.
You may be asking yourself, as I did: Who gives up their hair to be used in wigs and hair extensions? Is it taken by force? I immediately thought of Fantine's desperation in selling her hair in Les Miserables, and while not every story is exactly like hers, it’s more common than I’m comfortable admitting. There have been cases where women and girls have had their hair forcibly taken from them, and there are many more cases where they were given an unfair price for their priceless hair. Hair brokers have been known to set up shop wherever women are the most disenfranchised. It’s difficult to know what you’re getting when shopping for human hair, in part due to the lack of regulation around the world and even in the United States. The bottom line is that even in the 21st century, hair brokers can still get away with their schemes, because we as consumers fail to demand answers about where the hair comes from.
However, there are means of ethically sourcing hair. The intersection of high-quality, low manufacturing cost, and ethically sourced hair can be found in the Hindu temples of India, where devotees shave their heads and give the hair as an offering. The temple workers then sell the hair for good prices, as this hair is often very good quality: thick, long, and natural. Every year, millions of devout followers - and willing buyers - enable these temples to bring in over $7 million.
As more and more buyers are calling for fair trade products, even hair brokers are seeing their trade as an opportunity to impact communities for good. Dan Choi, founder of REMY NY, pays high rates for hair in Vietnam in order to enrich communities and change lives. He’s currently working there because he sees a need: Vietnam is experiencing a growing economy, which brings opportunities for many but also leaves many open to exploitation. Some of the women Choi has purchased hair from had previously been offered just a few dollars for their long, lush hair, and still others were tricked into giving their hair to brokers who gave them false promises about payment. With REMY NY, Choi’s mission is to be one of the first ethical and totally transparent companies on the market.
We’ve come to almost blindly accept this new trend of hair extensions, which allow us to have long hair today that we can simply dispose of tomorrow. But we need to think about the cost of this:
Is our convenience causing someone else to suffer?
Transparency is important. Demand transparency from anyone you purchase anything from. If your trusted, go-to hair person doesn’t know where a product came from, be cautious about using it. Take note of what industries may be preying on the vulnerability of others, and refuse to support them. Seek out and support endeavors that strive to empower the vulnerable, like Choi is doing for women in Vietnam who want to provide for their families, give their children opportunities, pursue an education, or even begin to practice the trade and enter into the hair and style industry. The look of measured joy on Nguyen Thi Thuy’s face as she is told she is still very beautiful with shoulder-length instead of hip-length hair is truly priceless.
About the Author
Rae Rohm is an avid baker, an enthusiastic storyteller, and a thoughtful writer who hails from Delaware. She is a graduate of Biola University, where she studied journalism. When she is not teaching people about the glories of her home state, she can be found enjoying nature with her sweet but mischievous puppy, singing along to music while running on the treadmill, and making gifts for her family and friends. Rae loves using her skills and talents to bring all people - past and present, near and far - into fellowship with one another.