A stylist in an upmarket London salon puts the finishing touches to Naomi Isted’s hair. Naomi, a chic thirtysomething, touches a hand to her platinum tresses and smiles at her reflection.
And no wonder. Her hair is glossy and voluminous, framing her face in bouncy waves that make her the envy of other women in the salon.
It certainly looks impressive — but that’s not her hair. At least, not all of it.
She’s spent three hours having £1,000 worth of extensions, made from real human hair, attached to the roots of her own blonde locks. Naomi is just one of tens of thousands of British women who use hair extensions, a number that’s risen by 70 per cent in the past five years.
Celebrities from Cheryl Fernandez-Versini to Liz Hurley and even Mary Berry rely on them to boost their own hair’s volume ready for the red carpet. Britain, the third largest importer in the world, buys 43 million tonnes of human hair a year.
That’s enough to cover two million heads, or stretch around the world 3,200 times. But very few British women who wear hair extensions have given more than a fleeting thought to where they come from — or, more alarmingly, from whom.
Here, we trace the astonishing, and at times disturbing, journey of a set of extensions from their donor — a destitute young woman in the slums of India — to the well‑heeled clientele of a British hairdresser . . . and reveal the truth about the multi-million-pound hair trade.
THE SHAVEN HEAD OF A ‘VIRGIN’ DONOR IN INDIA
At Yadagirigutta Temple in southern India, poor women wait patiently in line for their heads to be shaved. Most have never coloured, blow-dried or even cut their locks, and this so-called ‘virgin hair’ is particularly prized by the barbers, who will take just five minutes to cut it off with steel blades.
Among them is Lavanya Kakala, a dignified 28-year-old in a deep pink sari who has just had her waist-length hair shorn. She will receive nothing in return — and insists she wants nothing.
‘I did this because I wanted to say thank you to my God. I’m not bothered what happens to my hair afterwards. If women with bad hair want to use my old hair to look better, it’s better than it going in the bin.’
It is traditional for women to donate their hair to Hindu temples, knowing it will be sold on to dealers to raise funds. At times 50,000 a day stand in queues up to two miles long to participate in ‘tonsuring’ ceremonies. It is considered an act of pilgrimage, in which their heads are shaved and then coated in antiseptic sandalwood paste.
Lavanya’s hair is of the highest quality. Indian women, particularly in the south, avoid chemical shampoos, comb their hair frequently and douse it in coconut oil to keep it silky.
Though dark in colour, the strands take well to bleaching, so they can end up blonde, which is the most popular colour in British salons. As a result, Indian hair is in demand and the country is one of the top exporters.
Tonsuring has provoked much controversy in the West, not least because many pilgrims are children, some no older than five or six.
One temple, Tirumala, is said to have made £22 million in a single year. These funds are said to pay for new schools and hospitals, though the money is difficult to trace.
Emma Tarlo, professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, is the author of Entanglement: The Secret Lives Of Hair. She visited India and spoke to women at temples and says those she met were proud to give up their hair.
‘They had travelled from afar to fulfil their vows,’ she says. ‘They’re excited to go through with it.’ One woman told her: ‘Hair is a woman’s beauty. When she gives it to God, her beauty goes straight to him.’
SHADY DEALERS WHO TARGET THE POOR
The temples are far from the only players in this international trade. More contentious is the rise of hair dealers, who travel around Asia and Eastern Europe offering destitute young women a pittance for their locks.
In India, they’ve been known to target men, offering them £6 if they persuade their wives to sell their hair. There have been reports of husbands forcing their wives to do so, and of women being attacked and shaven by gangs.
Slum children have been tricked into having their heads shorn in exchange for toys. ‘I was held down by a gang of men who hacked at my hair,’ one girl said. ‘I know of other women who have been blackmailed and threatened.’
Eastern European hair is in demand, but it is harder to come by. Known as Slavyanka hair due to the women’s Slavic origins, it’s soft and often naturally blonde. Monthly cutting fairs are held in remote parts of Siberia and Ukraine.
Prices are extortionately low: 25in-long dark brown hair sells for £38, with light brown hair for £45.Daria Dangilova, 25, a photographer from Moscow, managed to get £120 for her waist-length dark hair, but admits that she regretted it instantly.
‘I became scared,’ she says. ‘I almost burst into tears, but by then it was too late.’One of the darker rumours about hair for extensions and wigs is that it comes from Eastern European prisons, where inmates are shorn by wardens.
In 2003, Victoria Beckham went so far as to jest: ‘I’ve got Russian Cell Block H on my head.’ She was joking, clearly — but is there any truth in it?
Though there have been no reported incidents, the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform admits that the practice could be possible, given the lack of regulation in the country’s hair trade.
South American hair, mostly from Brazil and Peru, is prized for its thickness.
In rural Peru, where the average monthly wage is £70, dealers travel house to house, targeting desperate women. If one agrees, her hair is crudely hacked off with scissors.
Ms Tarlo says Chinese hair is considered less desirable because it is coarser and straighter. ‘This is often mislabelled as Indian or Peruvian hair to make it more valuable,’ she says.
Age matters, too. Hair that has been growing since 1992 — making its owner 24 — is said to be the highest quality, because at that age, keratin (the protein which makes up hair strands) is at its most healthy.
HUNTING FOR HAIR ON RUBBISH HEAPS
The average woman loses between 50 and 100 hairs a day — and this isn’t something traders want to waste. Pedlars across Asia, Eastern Europe and South America visit houses and hair salons to collect this ‘dead’ hair.
It is often in poor condition and donors receive only a couple of pence, or an item such as a hair clip or bar of soap. Other hair is swept from doorsteps at night or raked from rubbish dumps, where families hunt for strands pulled from hair brushes.
Pedlars, of whom there are thought to be 500,000 in Asia alone, deposit the hair in warehouses, where it is sold to the firms who deal in shorter, lower-quality strands.
This hair is known as ‘comb waste’, and is harder to sort and clean. The resulting extensions are sold for as little as £5.
SECRET STASHES OF ‘BLACK GOLD’
Once hair is collected, it’s transported (rolled up in huge bales like hay) by road and plane to factories, and distributed to workers — as many as 350 per site — to be processed.
There’s a lot of secrecy in the trade. Obtaining hair is not easy, and there’s a risk of it being stolen while in transit. ‘Hair collectors are in competition,’ says Ms Tarlo.
‘The factories don’t want to reveal their sources and they don’t want to give away their methods for bleaching or processing the hair.
‘Hair is worth a lot of money — it’s known in the industry as “black gold”.’
PAINSTAKINGLY DETANGLED BY HAND
The first stage is untangling: a mammoth job that is completed by hand. It’s a thankless task, painfully slow, puts a terrible strain on the eyes and back — and is very badly paid.
It takes one person a day to untangle just 150g of hair. One female worker in a Chinese factory was 83 years old, working through a knot of hair with a darning needle.
‘I can’t see much, but I make up for it with patience,’ she said. Next, the hair is hackled — repeatedly pulled through a comb with sharp iron prongs to smooth it into uniform locks.
The third stage is known as drawing out, or sorting the strands into different lengths, before it’s combed and tied into bunches. By the end they look like the finely groomed tails of dressage competition horses.
SOAKED IN CHEMICALS TO MAKE IT BLONDE
The next part is soaking the hair. The cheaper comb waste is soaked in acid to remove germs. High- quality hair is placed in an osmosis bath, the exact composition of which is a closely guarded secret.
A mixture of chemicals slowly removes dark pigments without damaging the cuticles (the outer part of the hair shaft), which would otherwise leave it dry and brittle.
The gentle process enables hair to keep its shine and elasticity, but leaves it colourless and ready for dye. In the case of platinum blonde, it’s kept in the bath for 20 days to ensure the right result; brown or auburn extensions need ten days.
Before immersing the hair, the workers sew each strand to white strips of fabric. This gives a smooth, straight finish. If the hair is to be curled (some extensions come with built-in waves), it’s dried, wrapped around sticks and baked in a huge oven at a temperature of 240c to set the curl.
BULKED OUT WITH GOAT OR HORSE HAIR
At the lower end of the market, what’s labelled hair isn’t always what it seems. Human hair might have been mixed with animal hair such as strands of horses’ manes or clippings from goat hides or artificially weighed down (it’s sold by weight) with dirt, oil or water.
Synthetic hair can also be found in ‘real’ extensions. Made from acrylic fibres, it’s coarser than human hair and doesn’t hold a style when heated, so it can’t be blow-dried or curled.
PRICE FEEDS A FAMILY FOR THREE WEEKS
Hair is sold by the kilogram to wholesalers, many in the U.S., where it’s packed, labelled and stored ready for distribution. This is where the real money is: the Asian factories are paid a fraction of what the wholesalers make from British salons.
Gloria King, a wholesaler running a company called Egovan, says she has enough hair in stock to ship 10kg to Britain at any time. ‘These are very poor people,’ she says of her suppliers. ‘With the $45 we pay them, they can feed their family for three weeks.’
UK SALON CHARGES CLIENTS UP TO £1,200 British hairdressers order directly from these wholesalers, and finally the hair is flown to Britain, where it ends up on the heads of women who are often oblivious to the thousands of miles their extensions have travelled.
The salons pay around £100 for a bundle of 50 extensions, but some charge their customers more than double this.
At Inanch London, an exclusive salon in Fitzrovia, prices start from £110 for just 25 12in strands, with a full head of extensions normally comprising 100 strands (£440) plus £350 for the application.
‘The average client pays around £790 to £1,200, depending on length and volume,’ says managing director Joe Emir. His extensions come solely from Indian ‘hair donors’ such as Lavanya Kakala, who are happy to give up their tresses.
He insists any money raised by the temples ‘goes back into the local community’.
His client, Naomi, is a 37-year-old fashion consultant from Epping, Essex. She’s been having extensions for 20 years, and has just been fitted with a full head of new ones. They are fixed to her hair near the scalp using a keratin glue that fuses to the strands when heat is applied.
The locks will last around three months, until her natural hair has grown enough that the extensions no longer sit close to her roots. Depending on the process used to attach them, the same strands of hair can be re-glued several times.
‘When I was younger, my hair was very dry and kept breaking, so I started getting extensions to give it length and body,’ says Naomi. ‘Now I get compliments all the time. People ask how it can be so thick. They never seem to realise it’s not natural.
‘I come back every three or four months to get them replaced. ‘I do think about where they come from, but I trust my hairdresser that they’ve been ethically and willingly sourced.’