Where Do Hair Extensions Come from?

If you are curious where hair extensions come from, well, the quick answer is:

Donations at various Hindu temples and bundles of standard hair collected from brushes and combs across Asia.

I’ll explain more and if you are interested allow me to take you through the history of hair extensions.

Read on to learn more!

Brief History

It is no secret that the explosive popularity of social media has impacted many industries, but one in particular stands out as the primary currency of media.

Fashion and beauty dominate our cultural spheres with no regard to where we live on the globe.

Platforms like Instagram and YouTube have allowed the rich and famous from all over to give us a glimpse into the luxuries they appreciate.

In response, the consumer appetite for affordable fabulous continues to grow. Namely: our taste for long luscious locks.

The entanglement of hair and economics can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt. It should come as no surprise that an empire known largely for its love of the lavish might have been the first to wear the hair of slaves as a status symbol.

The art of making wigs and extensions have come a long way since Queen Nefertiti, yet the movement of hair continues to cycle from the impoverished to the wealthy.

Where Do Hair Extensions Come From?

That truly depends on how much you are able to spend and which retailers you buy them from. 

Due to a lack of clear and socially responsible regulation the hair extension industry is steeped in mystery. The types of hair you may see listed on a brightly colored package could mean just about anything.

In 2019 Asia sold the highest dollar worth of exported human hair accounting for 89.9% of the global total. Exporters in Europe and North America do contribute, but obviously in significantly smaller amounts.

There are two primary ways that hair enters the retail market:

1. Tonsuring, which is the religious practice of shaving your scalp to show humility or devotion. 1,320 barbers at the Tirupati Balaji temple in Tirumala stay busy shaving up to 80 heads of hair per day, making it one of the largest collection sites.

A staggering number of devotees make the pilgrimage here every day to donate their hair and relinquish their ego to Vishnu. The hair gathered from this practice makes up a large amount of the “remy” or “virgin” hair on the market.

This is the most valuable due to its sleek, shiny appearance and uniformity of its cuticle layer. Celebrity extension makers deal almost exclusively in “remy” hair making it incredibly expensive.

2. Standard hair is the opposite, making it a more affordable option for consumers. Often collected from combs or brushes by Asian women and bought for pennies from peddlers, standard hair is a significant part of the market.

This hair eventually makes its way to Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, where dozens of women work in untangling workshops to make use of the bundles of hair strands.

Three pounds of hair can take almost eighty hours of labor to untangle and these women are often paid dirt wages.

Poverty-stricken countries where workers are desperate see the most activity in hair trade. In more extreme cases, women have even been violently robbed of their hair.

Collection and distribution practices like these take place all over the world. The common denominator in most cases is that of desperation. Women stricken by poverty offer up their hair so that they do not have to resort to selling their bodies. 

The benefactors of this desperation have always been and will likely continue to be those with wealth.

Hair traditionally travels from poorer countries in the East to wealthier civilizations in the West.

Royals, celebrities, and Instagram influencers remain at the forefront of social media adorned with impossible lengths, harrowing heights, and tantalizing texture, exemplifying just how easy it is to have the hair everyone wants. 

So long as you can pay the price.

Where Should I Buy My Extensions?

Ignorance is bliss. For centuries women have chosen not to know where their extensions came from. 

For some, it may be difficult to wear something every day and not be curious about the person it came from. 

For most, I would venture to say that they simply just do not know where the hair comes from and have not been informed.

Anybody who has worn extensions can confirm the confidence boost that they provide. Whether used for volume, length, or both, women everywhere walk out of the salon feeling unstoppable after a fresh installation. 

It is not uncommon to see teens and college students casually maneuvering through their day with a set of clip-in extensions.

Brands like Great Lengths, Woven Hair, and Remy New York have successfully broken through to the top of this highly saturated market by ethically sourcing their hair and maintaining excellent quality standards. They all acquire their hair either from tonsuring or by paying people fairly for their contributions.

Remy NY stands out as an excellent choice by providing women in need high payment for their hair and providing work opportunities. In some cases, manufacturers can even trace the hair back to the women who grew it. Maybe if the story made them feel good, women would enjoy knowing where their extensions came from.

What Is the Value of Your Hair?

For a long time, the ethics and history of hair extensions have been as tangled as the bundles of brush hair they came from. Social media has undoubtedly exacerbated society’s desire for accessible fashion and driven the demand for extensions even higher.

This provides an opportunity for fair-trade companies to help lift women and their families out of poverty. Social media has also revealed the exploitation occurring in the industry and made way for the manufacturers previously mentioned to make a difference.

The demand for extensions is still growing, but with the rise in more sustainable and natural fashions taking place, I hope to see the narrative transformed into one of empowerment and beauty.

The choice to wear extensions can be informed — emboldening us while also securing a higher quality of life for another. The next time you pick up a bundle of hair to read the price tag, pause and ask yourself: 

“What is the value of feeling beautiful?”

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