America’s Booming Market for Human Hair

At a Harlem barber shop on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard, a beautician named Heavenly Cross slides a razor blade through a head of disembodied black hair. Sometimes her clients want to be Beyoncé, other times Rihanna, and sometimes they want the hair from “that Mary J. Blige video.”

Across the globe, an Indian woman makes her way along the southern banks of the Sri Swami Pushkarini River in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, to the gilded temple of Tirupati. Once inside, a barber wets the woman’s hair before weaving it into a braid. He places a band on either side of the braid then slides a razor across her scalp.

Within hours, the hair that was an offering to the gods will be shipped to the port city of Chennai, where it will be auctioned to a Chinese export company. Once in China, the hair will be sorted, washed and packaged before it is loaded into shipping containers bound for the shelves of discount beauty shops in the United States, where under names like “Bohemian Curl,” “Hollywood Wave” and “Sea Breeze” Heavenly Cross weaves her clients into who they want to be.

So goes the global supply chain for human hair, a market that is growing at an astonishing rate of 40 percent annually. Great Lengths Hair Extensions, one of the largest human hair venders in the industry, reports a 70 percent growth over the past five years. According to a report by the Professional Beauty Association, the past two years have seen a 28.5 percent increase in the number of U.S. salons that offer hair extensions.

The boom has been fueled by two major influences: celebrity culture and a wave of new technology for applying the extensions.

While American women once hid the fact that they outsourced their fuller hair styles, a new generation of female starlets, including Jessica Simpson, Brittany Spears and Fergie, openly admits to wearing other women’s hair.  Now the long-held celebrity secret of human hair extensions, in which tresses of imported locks are sewn, beaded or glued onto the follicles of hair beside the scalp, is out in the open.

“People talk about having extensions now,” said Genevieve Houle, manager of Barbie’s Hair World in Queens, N.Y. “It used to be a personal thing, like asking someone what bra size they wear. Now people say to each other, ‘where do you get your hair?’ It’s not taboo anymore.”

The effect of the extensions is to increase fullness and length. Women with short or thin hair can suddenly have hairstyles they never dreamed of.  The added hair looks healthy for an average of four months before it dries out from lack of nutrients, which are replenished when hair is growing.

Until recently, real human hair was too expensive for many women who wanted extensions. They had to settle for cheaper synthetic hair. In both cases, the hair was sewn together in tracks and then attached to the client’s head. But a new technique called “strand application” has made extensions look better and last longer.

With strand application, small bits of keratin, a protein naturally found in healthy hair, are fused to the client’s existing hair, several strands at a time. The extensions look and feel just like natural hair and stay in place for anywhere from four to six months before the hair dries out and has to be discarded.

Upscale salons, which always offered human hair, often processed in Europe, which is pricier, still charge a premium for extensions. Alexander Maud, stylist at Mizu Salon in Boston, says he charges anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 for a full head of extensions. His clients can spend over $1,000 on hair alone, he added.

But now low-end salons are offering human extensions using the old weave technique with packages of human hair sourced from Asia that are much cheaper. Discount beauty supply stores market full heads of “100% Indian Hair” for $60.

With the market for human hair growing so quickly, some worry that the boom may have a hidden human toll.

“We don’t really know how all this hair is being taken,” said Susie Smith, chief executive of Hollywood Hair Extensions, a salon and distribution company. “We have heard small bits and pieces about people being attacked for their hair or selling it to feed their families, but we’re not really talking about it.”

While there is a huge profit to be made on Indian locks, there is no monetary compensation for the Indian women who donate their hair to temples as an act of faith. Many women have no idea they are part of an expanding industry that crosses several international borders and is nearly impossible to regulate.

According to trade figures released by the United Nations, between 2009 and 2011, China tripled its imports of Indian hair, from 363 kilograms (800 pounds) to 1.1 million kilograms (2.4 million pounds).

Smith believes that if consumers knew where the hair was coming from, they would have second thoughts about purchasing extensions.

“I rarely get a client who asks, ‘Whose hair am I wearing?’” Smith said. “They think about it like they are buying an expensive leather purse and not asking, ‘What cow did it come from?’”