The Ugly Truth About Our Wig & Hair Extensions Habit

Photo by Iso Attrill.
Moving from buzzword to necessity, sustainability is important to so many of us in 2020. As mounting pressure is rightfully placed on the beauty industry, we’ve ditched microbeads, are swapping cotton pads for Face Halos and the humble shampoo bar is firmly back on our radar. But is there another huge eco-faux pas that’s going over (or perhaps on) our heads?
With the global wig and hair extension market estimated to be worth over $10 billion by 2023, it’s no surprise that the demand for synthetic hair has risen exponentially in recent years. The considerably lower price point and versatility, coupled with ethical issues surrounding natural hair harvesting, have made it an obvious choice for many. Environmentally however, synthetic hair plays a rather sinister role.
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Anyone who has attempted to put high heat styling tools on synthetic hair will be well aware that the composition is essentially ultra fine strands of plastic. Much like in fashion, the petrochemical-derived materials such as polyester, acrylic and PVC are not biodegradable. This means that they will ultimately end up in landfill and contribute further to our global waste problem.
While an extreme hair change is a breeze for some, others are more hesitant to chop off hard-earned inches or embark on a bold colour change. The noncommittal nature and ease of a wig allows wearers to experiment with their hair. Amber Rose Theron, a self-confessed synthetic wig "hoarder" enjoys being able to create a whole new look. Having dabbled with fake hair since her early teens, she says: "My natural hair can be inconsistent. Wearing wigs allows me to have more control." Echoing reduce, reuse, recycle, Amber regularly brings her wigs back to life and is an avid watcher of DIY videos on YouTube, but mentions she is unaware of how to dispose of synthetic hair.

Much like in fashion, the petrochemical-derived materials used for wigs, such as polyester, acrylic and PVC, are not biodegradable. This means that they will ultimately end up in landfill.

This is echoed by many synthetic wig wearers in the UK. Despite the lifespan of synthetic hair being far lower than that of human hair, best disposal practice is widely unknown; often there are no instructions on the packaging. Beth Summers, co-director of Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), tells R29: "Regulations are needed on all hair products, synthetic or real. A fair trade and transparent supply chain, with proper health and safety legislation for the manufacture, use and disposal of synthetic hair is required."
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Hair extensions expert, Vicky Demetriou agrees with the need for clarity on the issue and highlights that thorough research is vital. "This is because something may seem like a more sustainable option but in fact, isn’t." Working mainly with natural hair, Vicky says that her clientele is becoming more environmentally aware. "My main tip is to buy what you really want to wear and keep it," she says. "Going 'real' is a fantastic investment because hair is your biggest accessory and the planet is your home, but there is a massive demand for synthetic options. Providing you buy something you love and can rewear, it is a great conscious purchase."
Pricing is far too often the biggest barrier to sustainability, forcing people to make unsustainable choices. Amber, for example, can’t spend more than £40 on a wig. She would love an ethically sourced, natural wig but it’s out of her budget. Beth adds: "The relatively high price of sustainable options is often because the plastic version has an unrealistically low price that doesn't take into account the true costs such as the chemical, pollution, waste and health impacts created through manufacturing, use or at disposal." Conscious consumers are therefore stuck with a choice between economically cheap yet environmentally costly synthetic hair and less affordable natural hair that equally bears its own environmental weight. Additionally, Beth says: "Driving down the price of sustainable options might not be possible or desirable, potentially leading to the unethical exploitation of vulnerable women."

Driving down the price of sustainable options might not be possible or desirable, potentially leading to the unethical exploitation of vulnerable women.

Beth Summers, Women's Environmental Network
Synthetic hair use is also increasing within the afro hair community, with certain styles becoming more popular due to the natural hair movement. Celebrity braiding specialist, Afi Emily Attipoe explains: "Taking care of your natural hair is the most sustainable option but protective styling is paramount for afro hair, particularly in cold weather." She adds: "Some hairstyles work better with synthetic hair due to its texture, variety and ability to mimic afro hair." Although the hair isn’t biodegradable, Afi strongly believes in reusing, stating that proper removal is crucial for preservation. "With braids, unravel them like it's your own hair, carefully brush out and then rinse. For faux locks, hair can be used up to three times, and the rougher or messier the hair, the better it is for the texture."
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With braids being worn across several demographics, Charlotte Williams, marketing consultant and co-host of Sustainably Influenced podcast, adds that thanks to celebrities like the Kardashians rocking 'boxer braids', traditional protective styles have become acceptable to wear every day. Charlotte also believes there is a lack of awareness surrounding haircare but her podcast aims to shine a light on people’s everyday experience. "Hair is a big one for Bianca (Charlotte's co-host) and I as black women. There’s even an event pencilled in for the summer around conscious haircare."
A leading synthetic hair innovation will soon be more widely available. Raw Society Hair has created the world’s first 100% compostable braiding hair extension. The 'hair' is made from banana fibre, extracted from the stem of banana trees. As the stem purely connects the fruit and the tree, it is a natural byproduct of farming; using it in this way gives it purpose, saves land use and provides farmers with additional income. The brand is owned by Welsh sisters, Cherry and Crystal Hinam, who emigrated to Australia in 2017 and have backgrounds in human hair extensions and graphic design respectively. Speaking exclusively to R29, Cherry says: "We receive the raw product from Uganda. It arrives yellow in colour, curly and frizzy. We then colour and style it until it is ready to be used. Not only can the hair be reused, but it can also be curled and straightened." With plans to sell direct to consumer as well as to businesses, the sisters are also about to launch a 'zero' range, where colour is applied without water or heat and is 100% natural.
Wig banks are also cropping up around the UK, providing another way to reuse synthetic wigs. Catering for those with hair loss who are also financially limited, community-driven companies such as Simply Wigs take donations of used wigs which they then wash and recondition before reselling for as little as £5.
As the war on plastic intensifies, a sustainable synthetic hair solution is still quite challenging to find. While we wait for innovation to arrive, the only thing we can really control is our individual efforts. The best way to shop sustainably is, of course, not to shop at all – however this is often idealistic. So whether it’s switching to human hair or reusing synthetic hairpieces, small changes – like learning to take better care of synthetic hair or being mindful of when and where we dispose of our wigs – are the best place to start.
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