The Secret World of Black Market Hair Extensions

Updated 09/23/16

Hair extensions usually bring to mind images of long, flowing, Rapunzel-style locks, but often overlooked are the women who actually donate the hair. After all, the real human hair in your extensions had to come from someone.

Who are these women? What brings them to give up something that, for many of them (and us), is a defining characteristic? We asked Arin Brahma, CEO of Rebelle USA, and Riqua Hailes, owner of Just Extensions in LA (they've both traveled all over the world to find out where their hair is sourced, and to fully understand the industry), to shed some light on the global hair extension industry.

Keep reading to get a behind-the-scenes look at the hair extensions industry.

Different types of hair extensions
Imaxtree

To understand where most hair extensions come from, it's first important to understand different types of hair. Asian hair has a round cross-section and is usually thick and straight. African hair has a more rectangular shape at the cross-section, which Brahma says results in kinky, curly hair, while Caucasian hair is oval at the cross-section. The reason why Indian hair is so sought-after in the Western market is that the cross-section is very similar to that of Caucasian hair.

These terms are often used interchangeably. Brahma says that fair trade refers more to financial aspects, while ethically sourced means the hair was obtained in an ethical manner. Hailes adds that she believes the terms are interchangeable: "For example, some women sell their hair for money while others donate for religious reasons, either way, there is a fair exchange and both parties are willing."

View from behind of woman with long hair
Imaxtree

"The highest quality sourced hair is virgin remi, unprocessed hair that is cut from a human's head with the hair cuticle going in the same direction," Hailes explains. Remi hair is the same in regards to the manner in which it's obtained, though it may be color-treated or permed. It’s also another term for high-quality hair but doesn't specifically refer to Indian hair (though the majority of it is).

You may have also heard the term "temple hair," which is hair that’s been offered by Indian men, women, and children who go to their temple and offer their hair as a religious experience to God.

About 15 or 20 years ago, Brahma says that the temples had so much hair they would end up having to burn it since they had nothing else to do with it. Then, thanks to the extensions industry, non-profit temples discovered that they could raise money by selling the hair and turning the profits into benefits for their communities, like better education and health centers.

But remi hair only makes up around 20 percent of the hair extensions market, so where does the rest of it come from?

Whereas temple hair is bundled into a ponytail before it’s shaved, then packaged and sold that way, non-remi, low-quality hair extensions are made up of hair that’s been mixed. While this may not seem like a big deal, think of it this way: Your hair cuticles all grow in a certain direction. If hair gets mixed together and not all the strands are laid out the same way, the cuticles will catch on each other; meaning, it’ll tangle easily. And once the hair is mixed up, there's no way to sort it back, which begs the questions: How come most extensions aren't super tangly?

And how does the hair get mixed up in the first place?

Woman getting hair extension put in
Imaxtree

Brahma says that vendors gather the hair that falls on the floor at places like Indian temples or salons. Vendors also go door to door in poverty-stricken areas, especially in China, and trade women hair clips, utensils, and sometimes money in exchange for their fallen hair (think: hair that's fallen onto the floor, or stuck in a brush). Hailes confirms this, saying, "What I have learned during my visits that I find truly unethical are vendors, mainly in China, using fallen hair (dead hair collected from hair combs, brushes, or the floor) and marketing it as remi or virgin remi hair."

Since there's no way all the cuticles will point in the same direction, vendors send these balls of hair off to factories, where they're given an acid bath that removes the cuticle, Brahma says. This solves the tangling issue. But since the cuticle helps sustain the hair and keep it shiny and healthy, removing it leaves the hair lackluster and dull. Both Brahma and Hailes say that the factory then gives hair a silicone wash and a coating, mimicking the look of shiny, healthy tresses. But, Hailes notes, this coating will only last six to eight shampoos before hair begins to matt.

As stated above, after they process the hair, vendors turn around and sell it as remi hair. Brahma says that the profit margins are better when selling lower quality hair. "Women pay thousands of dollars for fallen hair because vendors lead consumers or distributors to believe that the fallen hair is authentic virgin remi," Hailes says.

Brahma agrees, saying that the biggest problem in the industry is lying. He bets you can't find a single company that labels their products non-remi. Vendors take advantage of the fact that it can be impossible to tell the difference, through touch and sight, between true remi and non-remi hair.

Vendors don't just lie about the quality of the hair, but also where it was sourced. For example, you may see a package marked as "Brazilian hair," but it’s just as likely that the hair was actually sourced from China or India and only packaged in Brazil. "The industry isn't regulated. Vendors can label their hair as they please and there is no way to know what's going on," Hailes says. "As an entrepreneur, it was important for me to take this journey around the world to see firsthand how the hair is sourced and what kind of hair it really is."

Woman with long blonde hair being worked on by hairstylist
Imaxtree

There's a lot of misconception about the ethical issue, Brahma says. Crimes like kidnapping women for hair or stealing hair off of dead bodies sound unsavory, but they also simply aren’t viable as a business plan, he explains. Hailes seems to agree: "I've heard stories of hair collectors kidnapping women or girls and cutting their hair. I haven't dealt with or seen any evidence of the vendors I've met doing so. The vendors I spoke with mentioned it was an issue of the past but not so much anymore."

She also says that the international industry has "changed dramatically" in the past six years, and that's because distributors have learned how to effectively dupe people into paying thousands of dollars for low-quality extensions. Distributors have learned to manipulate hair textures to keep cost low and meet the demand of women throughout the world. "In the past, the black market was hair collectors stealing hair from the poor to sell, but now the black market of hair extensions is 'fallen hair' known as trash, which is cleaned [and] then marketed as high-quality hair," she says.

There are "alarmists" in the industry, Brahma says. Not just about various unsavory, sensationalist stories, but also about the men, women, and children shaving their heads in the temples, whom he says would still offer their hair even if it wasn’t being sold for extensions. "People make a big deal about the cultural aspect," he says. Another thing to keep in mind? Hair has to be very long to be used in extensions. Gross beauty fact: Brahma says that hair between three and 10 inches (too short to be used for extensions) often end up in factories in Germany, where they convert it into an amino acid (L-Cysteine) that's used in baking and chocolate.

The tradition of offering their hair in temples "has been around for 5,000 years," Brahma explains. And it will continue, whether the hair extensions industry keeps booming or not.

Does this make you think differently about hair extensions?

Related Stories