Investigating the Human Hair Extensions Industry

Many women believe their hair is a personal attribute; it’s their crowning glory, identity, confidence and sanctuary. The majority of us wouldn’t tolerate anything less than hair perfection but if you knew the dark, unreported truths behind hair extensions, would you still be rushing to wear them?

In many countries worldwide, the must-have fashion and beauty accessory is a gorgeous set of long luscious locks. It is estimated that the hair extension industry is worth a mind-blowing £60 million in England alone.

The unlucky girls who aren’t blessed with natural enviable hair will find a way to get it – at any price. So whether you want European hair, Indian Temple hair, Remy hair or Virgin hair and want them micro-ringed, weaved, clipped or fused, hair extensions can range from £1,500 in specialist salons or a bit of spare change in your purse.

We are infatuated with turning our split-ends and straggles into glowing tresses that a British survey conducted by Tresemme revealed on average women spend a jaw-dropping £30,000 on her hair over the course of her lifetime. Who can put a price on beauty, right?

In Russia, having long hair is a measure of a woman’s beauty and it was seen as a punishment to have your asset cut off. Similarly in India, a woman believes the longer your hair, the better your marriage prospects will be. And, in the Hebrew bible, Samson, a judge of the Israelites, was given supernatural powers by the God which vanished when his tresses were shaved.

Granted for some, hair extensions are more than an ego boost or materialistic need. They are a way to stop getting unwanted attention by inappropriate strangers or curious eagle eyes due to a medical condition. Bethany* is sufferer from Trichotillomania, a stress-related disorder that means the 20-year-old has a compulsive subconscious urge to pull her hair out. Avid hair extension wearer, Bethany* explains: “It’s gradually become worse and it’s really embarrassing if people that don’t know see my hair as it’s become really thin and patchy.”

A sufferer of a Trichitilliomania - a compulsive urge to pull out your out - gets hair extensions to cover the problem

A sufferer of a Trichitilliomania – a compulsive urge to pull out your out – gets hair extensions to cover the problem

The student is currently receiving counselling to address the underlying issue and has been referred to Manchester Hair Clinic. She is now looking forward to having human hair extensions secured onto her head with a mesh and safe adhesive. She says: “I’m so excited. It will be the first time in ages I will actually have nice hair without having to take extensions out every night.”

In 2003, Victoria Beckham jokingly commented to the Sunday Times in 2003, saying that her hair “extensions come from Russian prisoners, so I’ve got Russian cell block H on my head.” However when Lyudmila Alpern, deputy director for the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, responded telling the newspaper: “If you go into a detention centre with long, beautiful hair, there is very little chance you’ll come out with it intact,” adding, “Wardens cut the hair because they want to have a bit of business on the side,” It made us all wonder, whose hair are we actually wearing?

Russian born hair extension expert, Tatiana Karelina was quick to dismiss ay myths  and says that being able to transform her clients is “very rewarding.” She sources the hair directly from Russia, as it’s “the main market.” She explains that the hair collectors constantly advertise in local newspapers and travel to towns and villages in Russia, most of which are poor and remote, to purchase the hair bundles.  The girls’ ponytails have been grown for a lifetime are chopped off from bum length to bob and paid the equivalent of £100.

Tatiana believes this is a very ethical way to source hair, as £100 “‘is a lot of money and that makes both sides happy.” For these girls, which are as young as 14, it could be the last option; a quick and easy way of making a bit of money when the family money-pot has run dry.

Bethany says:”That definitely makes you think about it more but I don’t think I would stop buying them just because of that.” She adds:  “I think it’s more of a problem that the hair buyers should think about and their morals for it.”

In India, the temples are bustling with people about to be tonsured – a religious sacrifice of one’s hair as it’s considered ‘the growth of sins’by devote Hindu’s, says Madhava Turmella, Vice President of the Hindu Temple Forum.

A baby girl having her hair shaved as part of a religious act in India

A baby girl having her hair shaved as part of a religious act in India

The sounds of clippers buzz and blades scrape sharply against scalps. The young an innocent wince in fear; scared and screaming. Ponytails, straggles and strands are unceremoniously chucked into an eerie pile of rejected curls.  Men, women and children walk out with a head that is bare, naked and exposed and with no payment.

Indian mother Wanaga from the documentary Whose Hair Is It Anyway? explained she shaved her head in thanks to her daughter recovering from a serious illness which paralyzed half of her face. She said: “I was here all alone weeping looking at her so scared. I had to rush her to the hospital, I didn’t have money to take her and when they were taking her and treating her, I sat out and simply closed my eyes, prayed and wept. At that moment I was just crying, I was helpless, I didn’t have anybody. The moment I think of it I start crying. I was scared when I saw my child suffering. This hair will come anytime but I got my child.”

People aren’t even aware that each lifeless strand has a story, a meaning and a reason for being sacrificed. The hair dealer buys the sacks of processed locks from the temples, and in addition trivialises the story that came with it; putting a price on emotions and memories, all in the name of beauty.

These people aren’t worried about this notion of ‘beauty’. It is a trivial look that has so many cultures worshipping it. Families use our materialism as a business prospect and ‘beautiful’ definitely isn’t the right word to describe low-grade extensions.

These hair extensions can cost as little as £10 from the local shop and come from impoverished areas where men and women rummage through bins and waste sites searching for bunches of hair; pulling the discarded carpet of hair from hair brushes and gathering the plughole blockers. They use our fashion and beauty must-have as a way to survive. That’s the real cost of beauty.

Rubbish pickers from poor impoverished areas making money by collecting peoples hair from the waste

Rubbish pickers from poor impoverished areas making money by collecting peoples hair from the waste

Disgusted, Bethany* vows she is “NEVER buying cheap hair extensions again.”


*Names been changed to protect identity.

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