The Surprising Story Behind Your Hair Extensions

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Anyone who’s impulsively run to a stylist with a picture of Michelle Williams’ pixie can understand the agony of growing out your hair. Or, maybe too many hours of watching E! red carpet coverage have given you envy of celebs’ ample manes.

Whatever the cause of your need to super-size your strands, nothing offers instant gratification like hair extensions. But, did you know that there’s a long, interesting journey behind them? Before you put an end to your short-hair saga, find out the long, strange trip your extensions have taken — and what you need to be aware of before heading to the salon (this time with a photo of Blake Lively, not Michelle Williams).
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What Are They Made Of?
First, you should know that not all hair extensions are alike. Some are human hair, some are synthetic, and others mixed — a blend of human and synthetic, and in some cases even animal hair.

“Synthetic extensions are made from polymers that mimic the look and feel of human hair,” says Javonté Anyabwelé, CEO of Madali hair extensions. “Also called ‘pack hair’ or ‘beauty-supply hair,’ these extensions are usually mass-produced and have become more popular based on access at beauty-supply stores.”

“Human hair is more durable and natural-looking,” says Doug Macintosh, an extensions expert and colorist at Louise O’Connor Salon in New York City. “Synthetic hair is less expensive, but can’t withstand heat-styling at high temperatures and needs to be cared for as if it was fabric.”

Macintosh says human hair makes the best long-term extensions, and synthetic options are great for clip-ins that you put in for special events rather than day-to-day wear.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What Should I Look For?
“The best human-hair extensions are 100% virgin hair,” Anyabwelé says. Virgin hair has never been chemically altered with color or texture-changing chemicals, he explains, so it’s the healthiest and strongest available. “This keeps the original cuticle layers intact, so it moves and flows as it would on your head.”

The Rolls-Royce of extensions is 100% virgin Remy double-drawn hair. “Remy means all the cuticle is intact and all the hair is facing the same direction,” explains says Monica Thornton, cofounder of RPZL, an extensions and blowout bar in New York City. When the cuticles are aligned, there's less tangling.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Double-drawn hair is also prized because it's the most consistent length. “Double-drawn hair is all the same length to the ends, where single-drawn can have up to a two-inch variation in length,” Thornton says. In order to bundle hair in an even length, the hair must be sorted twice, or double-drawn, to remove the shorter hairs.

Less desirable are extensions made from fallen hair. “When hair is shed, it’s considered fallen hair,” says Riqua Hailes, owner of Just Extensions salon in Los Angeles. The hair may come out of a comb, brush, or be collected off salon or factory floors. “People will collect fallen hair the way some people collect bottles and cans,” Hailes says.

Fallen hair isn’t ideal because the cuticle needs to be stripped in an acid bath to avoid tangling. Often, the hair is coated in a synthetic substance like silicone to mimic the look and feel of Remy hair. Buyer beware: High-quality extensions are often mislabeled, and are actually fallen hair.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What Kind Should I Get?
There are several different options — ask an expert about the right one for you. “Call the brands and ask for salons in your area that they would recommend,” Macintosh says. Since prices range widely depending on your length and texture, you’ll need a consultation. But, before you go long, remember: “Not everyone can wear extensions — if your hair is too fine or thinning, you could cause damage.”

Bonded extensions fuse individual pieces to your hair using heat. RPZL uses ultrasound, however. These can be the most costly, but last the longest.

Tape extensions attach to your hair in adhesive strips. They can be more affordable, but require maintenance to adjust the strips.

Weaves are sewn into your braided hair. These tend to be the most affordable option, and will last about three months.

Clip-ins attach to your hair with combs. You can easily place and remove them, making them ideal for special occasions and short-term wear.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Where Do Extensions Come From?
In order to find virgin hair, manufacturers often travel to rural villages where women may never have even used a blowdryer. The hair used in extensions typically comes from India or China, but some manufacturers source hair from Europe, Brazil, and the Philippines. “Most hair comes from China,” Anyabwelé says. “Almost all the hair on the market is made in China, even if the label calls it Brazilian, Peruvian, or Malaysian.”

The women who provide hair for extensions either donate it or sell it. In India, Hindus often practice tonsuring, a ritual sacrifice of their hair. Called “temple hair,” this is a large source of Indian hair extensions.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Women may also sell their hair to runners, the people employed by manufacturers to source extensions, explains Ngozi Opara, founder and CEO of Heat Free Hair. “The age of the donor and coarseness of the hair are factors that the fee is based on.”

Manufacturers are reluctant to disclose the fees paid for hair, so it’s challenging to find out if your extensions are responsibly sourced. You can do some legwork and ask the brands where the hair was manufactured and sourced from. If the company is willing to share the info via email, you can feel fairly safe that it's being honest. Great Lengths openly documents that the fees it pays for temple hair are invested in area schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
How Are Extensions Manufactured?
Once the hair reaches the factory, it is cleaned, conditioned, and dried. (Anyabwelé says his extensions are dried for eight hours.) Here, the hair will be processed to have different textures and colors. Some factories use steam to set a texture, while others use rollers and relax or perm the hair. “Creating texture is the hardest part of manufacturing, and each factory is very protective of the technology they use to create a pattern,” Opara says.

The extensions are dyed with industrial pigments, Macintosh says. “The hair is soaked in lye or chemicals, and then colored with fabric-grade dye,” he explains. “That’s why you have to color-match your hair — extensions won’t take salon color like regular hair.”

The hair must also be hackled, or combined and sewn into wefts. Several donors can make up a weft, depending on hair much hair they have to contribute. Making the wefts can involve old-school needle and thread or high-tech machines.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
What Should I Look Out For?
Here’s some hair-raising truth about hair extensions: “The hair-extension industry isn’t regulated,” Hailes says. “So, there are inconsistencies between what’s on the label and what’s in the package.” As we mentioned, even if a package is labeled “human” hair, you could be getting a blend of synthetic and animal strands. Something labeled “Remy” could actually be hair that’s had the cuticle stripped and then coated with silicone.

“Your safest option is to go with a trusted expert,” Hailes says. Ask your salon if they have checked into the sourcing of the hair. But, touching and seeing the hair might be your best clue. It should feel just like real human hair — because that’s what it should be! Anything too shiny, too uniform, or too rough is not likely virgin Remy hair.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
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