Where Does Real Human Hair Extensions Come From?

“Well my sisters who treasure that human hair you use to make ourselves beautiful each week as you emerge from the Beauty Shop. Ever wonder the cost of that beautiful hair??

Nguyen Thi Thuy’s hip-length hair has always been one of her most prized possessions. Every morning before work, she gently combs out any knots, massages it with coconut oil to keep it jet black and shiny, and weaves it into the safety of a braid. Long, healthy, thick hair is a traditional marker of beauty in rural Vietnam, and although she already works two demanding jobs as a farmer and housekeeper, taking care of her hair is one of the few luxuries she can afford.

Over the past few years, Thuy has been targeted by traveling hair traders who scout her small town looking for women desperate enough to sell their hair on the cheap. The most she’s ever been offered is 70,000 dong, or about $3. Some women fall victim to these prices, but even in her family’s hardest times, she’s always said no. But the latest rumor in town is more appealing: Her youngest son heard of a man who travels through the countryside paying close to $100 for hair like hers… an amount that could finally allow her to provide for her family without working 16-hour days.

What may seem like a small amount in America goes a long way in Thuy’s rural Vietnamese community. She has long dreamt of being able to raise chickens and ducks on a family farm, but it’s a major financial investment that’s she’s never been able to afford. So, she agrees to sell her hair for the very first time. “I love my hair so much, it’s so beautiful,” Thuy tells us. “I don’t know what I will look like with short hair.”

Her buyer, Dan Choi, a Korean-American expat who started his human hair company, in 2017, arrives days later on a motorbike armed with scissors, zip ties, and cash. After agreeing upon a rate, he sections and cuts Thuy’s hair, leaving her with a blunt, shoulder length chop. Dan paid Thuy about $100 for her hair — the equivalent of her entire family’s monthly salary — which is enough to buy livestock to raise for years to come. They both got what they wanted: Choi has one more beautiful ponytail to sell to a roster of celebrity hairstylists and Thuy will finally be more financially independent.

Feel good stories like this are uncommon in the global world of hair trading, a completely unregulated business that’s reportedly worth billions of dollars per year. Instead, it’s filled with scammers and con artists who prey on desperate women in the developing world to cut their hair off for a few dollars — and later sell it to rich women with means to have human hair as a status symbol. These “hair brokers” flood conflict zones and war-torn countries where it’s easy to exploit women for their last valuable possession. But as consumers become more aware of how the hair industry has been operating in the shadows, one new company is stepping up to create a business model that consumers can feel good about: fair trade hair.

A solution has been a long time coming: People have been wearing hair extensions and wigs for thousands of years, often at the expense of others; as far back as Ancient Egypt, wealthy women reportedly wore the hair of slaves to convey status. But the topic of wearing fake hair has never been more accepted than it is now, with top hairstylists marketing their own extension lines, celebrities sporting new wigs every day, and sew-ins offered as a regular service at blow-dry bars. While the stigma of wearing fake hair might be fading, there’s still a huge amount of secrecy about where it all really comes from — and the reality is worse than you can imagine. Choi travels from village to village cutting hair, offering 30 times the amount his competitors pay.


The Hair Industry Is Designed To Exploit Poor Women

The exploitation of women in this industry starts with how hair is marketed. Google Brazilian or Russian hair — two in-demand types — and you’ll be met with hundreds of returns promising “virgin remy” for cheap. Unprocessed hair (virgin) with all the strands going in the same direction (remy) is the gold standard because it’s healthier, smoother, and wears better than the alternatives. But the demand far outweighs the supply, so hair companies fake it by chemically processing any hair they can find (a practice that deceives the consumer and is hazardous to the factory workers’ health) or they buy hair from sources that cannot be traced. This gives way to even more unscrupulous sourcing practices, like armed robbery.

There’s no shortage of stories of women and children being attacked for their hair — robbed by gun or knifepoint in many poor countries.

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