For Sale: Human Hair—A Growing Concern

False Claims • No Regulations • Low Quality • Poverty-Stricken Donors

No regulations or standards exist for the sale of hair in the United States, and experts tell us that the majority of hair that’s sold for extensions is of low quality. That’s a problem, because low-quality extensions are prone to fraying and tangle quickly.

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Christina Roddam underwent chemotherapy three times and radiation therapy twice. Her hair grew back each time, but it wasn’t as full as it used to be. As a result, she’s worn hair extensions since her last treatment in September 2014.

Roddam, 41, tells us that typically she buys her extensions online, “wherever they’re cheapest.” She tries to keep down her costs by putting in extensions herself instead of going to a salon, but she still spends at least $100 per month on extensions.

Roddam buys extensions that are labeled as virgin hair, or hair that never was treated chemically, or remy hair, which is virgin hair that’s collected from a single donor in a single cut to preserve the orientation of the hair’s cuticle (the layer of the hair that holds in moisture) and its luster and strength.

Virgin and remy extensions are supposed to last 1 year, but Roddam says her extensions typically last 6–12 weeks before they become frayed and tangled. That indicates that her hair isn’t virgin or remy but instead chemically treated to give it color, luster and a soft texture. (Chemically treating hair involves bleaching, dyeing, perming, relaxing or any sort of chemical treatment that alters hair from its original state.) Hair that’s treated chemically isn’t desirable for long-lasting extensions, because the treatment dissolves the protective layer that’s on hair strands and causes damage to the cuticles. Consequently, chemically treated hair is prone to drying out and breaking.

Roddam concedes that she has no way to know what type of hair that she buys.

“I do worry about it,” she says.

Roddam isn’t alone in her confusion. Nine experts tell us that consumers can’t know definitively the type of hair that they buy. Although most hair suppliers claim to sell “guaranteed” virgin or remy hair, all of the experts whom we interviewed say most of the hair that’s sold in the United States is treated chemically. Experts say most suppliers don’t disclose or don’t know from where their hair originates.

People “make claims and sell whatever they sell,” says Spencer Kobren, who is the founder and president of American Hair Loss Association (AHLA), which is a consumer advocacy organization. “Sometimes the claims are accurate, and sometimes they’re not.”

No regulations or standards exist in the United States for the importation, labeling, sale and use of human hair that’s in extensions and wigs. In other words, the human-hair market is a buyer-beware segment in which you can be fleeced.

ON THE RISE. Bundles of hair typically pass through a number of different countries before they reach the United States. Arin Brahma, who is a hair-industry expert, tells us that he analyzed extensions from 15 companies and found that 90 percent of the hair was low-quality, chemically treated hair or hair that was mixed with animal or synthetic hair. Natalie Ruzgis, who is a stylist, says she found that bundles of hair sometimes included horse or yak hair.

Despite the uncertainty, the demand for hair is increasing. The United States imports more hair than does any other country. Hair that’s labeled as coming from India, which is the location of most true virgin or remy hair, accounts for about $2 billion in annual sales, says Helene Stahl of Extensions Plus, which sells hair. Eight other experts estimate the total U.S. hair market to be in the billions.

Hair widely is available online and in beauty-supply stores. Sheila Stotts, who is a hairdresser, tells us that the price of hair doubled in the past 5 years. A typical bundle of hair for extensions weighs 4 ounces, measures 8–24 inches long and costs $40–$250, depending on the color, quality and texture. Wig prices range from $100 for a low-quality model to $10,000 for one that’s impossible to distinguish from real hair. As the price of human hair soared in the past 5 years, experts say, people who experienced hair loss because of a medical ailment, such as cancer, typically struggle to afford a decent wig.

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