Real hair extensions: secrets of UK hair imports

Real hair extensions continue to grow in popularity. But do you know where your imported hair comes from? The hair trade’s shady side might shock your clients.

Transforming ordinary locks into flowing tresses, hair extensions are more than the latest must-have accessory – from The Only Way is Essex to our future Queen Kate (allegedly), they have become a staple of salons’ trade.

Once the preserve of hairdressers specialising in Afro-Caribbean hair, hair extensions are becoming a good earner for salons across the board. As profits from cuts, colouring and blowdrys have remained static, hair extensions have become an important source of growth. However, synthetic hair extensions melt when straightened, curled or otherwise heat treated, leaving real hair the preferred choice. A full head of real hair extensions can cost £2,000 in a top London salon, but many hairdressers regularly earn £500 to £1,000.

The UK is now the third biggest importer of human hair (behind the US and mainland China) in a trade worth £64 million, up from £42 million just three years ago – that’s over 1,000 tons of human hair imported each year. But the source of this hair can raise serious ethical doubts.

Great lengths for hair extensions

Aside from a few dubious mentions in tabloids that have been discredited, the once common myth of hair taken from corpses seems to have died away. But there are still ways that your salons can be exposed to unethical practices.

Hair from Eastern Europe is in increasingly high demand in the UK because it’s more similar to Western hair than Asian hair and doesn’t have to be bleached first. Blonde European hair reputedly sells at £1,000 a time (Beyonce is apparently a huge fan).

Sourcing can be shady. While some comes from students targeted by bus stop adverts asking for “blonde or brown hair at least 30cm long”, not all Eastern European hair may be sold by choice. A controversial report several years ago claimed that hair was forcibly being chopped off female Russian prisoners. At the time, Victoria Beckham is reported to have joked that she had “Russian cell-block H hair on my head.”

Countries like Peru, Brazil, South Korea and Burma also export large quantities of hair and it’s easy to understand why poor women with long, natural hair in these countries would consider selling this asset.

But no one can be sure the ‘donors’ are getting a good – or fair – price. Horror stories of daughters and wives being forced to crop or sell their hair aren’t easy reading.

Some practices can divide options. The thought of selling extensions from children too young to give their consent will almost certainly raise eyebrows. But salon owners may already be doing this by buying hair from Indian children who have had their heads shaved in a ceremony called tonsuring.

“It’s uncomfortable to see,” said Dawn Reilly, marketing director at worldwide hair extension company Balmain. “But it’s accepted culturally in India where freely giving your hair to the temple is seen as a gift to God.”

One Indian temple has auctioned hair for more than £25 million. Whether you see such earnings as a worthy contribution to a poor community, or the corruption of religion for the sake of vanity, bear in mind that your clients will have their own opinion. Clearly explaining where hair has come from is strongly advised, although you must first understand this yourself – not always an easy task.

Ethical hair imports

While ‘ethical hair’ is likely to cost more, you may find it differentiates your salon from competitors. Balmain, which supplies 4,500 UK salons with real hair extensions, uses hair sourced from Chinese hair salons.

“It’s culturally acceptable in China for women to sell their hair to raise income,” says Reilly. “It’s called virgin hair because it’s never been chemically treated and the women are paid the equivalent of six months of a working man’s salary, which is then used for perhaps a dowry or for university fees. We have three factories in China which are regularly checked and we have an ethical policy which is strictly adhered to.”

Great Lengths, who supply temple hair extensions, say their product is 100% traceable, that the hair is given willingly and that a fair price is paid.

With an influx of substandard hair into the market, trade and retail suppliers like CrownCouture, Hair Development and the like now reassure their customers that their hair extensions are the very best available and list where they are sourced.

However, as Asian countries become more westernised, human hair will become less readily available which is why Balmain says it invented Memory Hair seven years ago.

It’s synthetic, but unlike most synthetic hair to can be heated to 160°C without melting. “It’s a mixture of a human and synthetic hair compound,” Reilly explains. “Clients are driving the market; they want real hair extensions but human hair will become more expensive and more difficult to source.”

A combination of factors may soon drastically cut the human hair extension fad. The years needed to grow hair to the desired length, the increasing wealth of the main source – Asia – and expanding demand may see real hair extensions become too expensive for many of today’s customers.

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