There are rows upon rows of human and synthetic hair extensions lined up in plastic bags across a beauty supply store on a busy city center street in Manchester UK. It’s a familiar scene. These ubiquitous beauty supply stores were my first introduction to hair extensions and while I haven’t been to these shops for some time, today they look the same as they always have. “How much for Brazilian kinky curly hair these days?” I ask the young man behind the counter. “£75,” he tells me. I wince at the price of the small bundle of wefted hair (I’ll need six packs for a full head). “They’ll last you for a long time,” he reassures me. “It’s great quality.”
But is it? I am no stranger to wearing hair extensions — whether it’s for weaves, braids or wigs, human or synthetic hair. Yet, it’s only in recent years that I’ve actually cared (really cared) about the environmental and ethical cost of the hair I am consuming and discarding. Now more than ever, I am asking, is it ever ethical to wear hair extensions?
From the exploitation of poor women for high-grade “virgin” human hair to the mass dumping of synthetic hair in landfills, the hair extension business — expected to reach $1,185.1 million in the UK by 2027 — can be ethically murky. While pressure is continually applied to the fashion and beauty industries to change their ethical and environmental practices, the hair extension industry still remains largely unregulated, allowing for unseemly practices to go unnoticed by consumers.
Yet wigs and extensions are ever-popular. For Black women like me who use hair extensions for both protective styling and self-expression (and have no immediate plans to stop) fingers point to us as the source of this growing demand. While Black women certainly aren’t the only demographic who wears hair extensions, a recent report by the Global Hair Wigs and Extension Market, states that “people of African descent are the largest consumers of hair wigs and extensions.”
Given both human hair and synthetic hair extensions offer up a multitude of ethical quandaries, for Black consumers especially, there is a growing call for hair extension businesses to cough up their ethical credentials. If a retailer doesn't list their sourcing, it's never been easier to reach out and ask — demanding accountability. I spoke to Black women fronting both human and synthetic hair extension companies about how they plan to be both sustainable and ethical for the sake of the very women they aim to sell to.
Can wearing human hair extensions ever be ethical?
For those who are au fait with hair extensions, the words “Remy”, “Raw” and “Virgin” (meaning unprocessed) are familiar indicators of high-quality human hair. They tend to be associated with countries such as Malaysia, Russia, Brazil and Cambodia, which are branded as the most luxurious. Hair can cost in realms of the hundreds to the tens of thousands to purchase. These descriptors often tell a longer story of how far this hair has come to be sold and the person it once belonged to.
Back in 2019, Refinery29 unveiled the truth about where human hair extensions were sourced and, through time spent in rural Vietnam, highlighted ways in which poor women are exploited for their hair. As journalist Lexy Lebsack reported, hair traders scout women in small villages to sell their hair on the cheap. In some reported cases, women with long ponytails are targeted by thieves, and their hair is forcibly cut off and sold illegally to traders.
Tendai Moyo, CEO and co-founder of Ruka Hair, a Black-owned hair extension company that provides 100% human hair extensions to predominantly Black consumers, says: “There is no one holding these manufacturers to account. Moyo asks of manufacturers: “Where are you getting the hair from? Are you paying the people you're getting the hair from fairly? Are these people who've been trafficked? Or are willingly provided with their hair extensions.”
“When you look at the units that are sold to Africa, for example, 38% of the 100 million units that were sent over in 2020 were counterfeit. So you have this huge problem where a lot of the time someone can spend £500 pounds on a wig that's meant to be real hair and it's a mix of the synthetic, human horse and, God knows what else,” Moyo explains.
To ensure its collection of wigs and hair extensions are both great quality and ethically sourced, Ruka Hair states that it sources human hair ethically from partners based in southeast Asia, specifically India and Bangladesh. This hair comes from women who sell their hair after cutting it and often rely on selling hair as a source of income. To cut down the demand for raw human hair, Ruka Hair will soon be launching in Selfridges, London and will be accepting and recycling real hair extensions, and selling them on their marketplace for a cheaper price.
Yet, as mentioned, the hair extension industry still remains largely unregulated, and, as Moyo found, it can be difficult to find traders who fairly source human hair. “The biggest lesson is that we, as a company, have to hold those manufacturers to a higher standard, because there is no regulatory body that's going to do it for us,” she tells Refinery29. “We have a quality control facility here in London so that we can double-check the hair that comes and send back what doesn't work. And that's at a cost to us as a business.”
Priscilla Jonker is in the process of launching her own UK-based hand-tied hair extension company, Belle Epoque, and admits it wasn’t until seeing the dubious practices of some factories and traders first-hand, that she began to ensure that the human hair extensions she used were ethically sourced from artisanal workshops.
“I made a decision to go and visit the artisans myself and actually create a relationship with them and that's what opened my eyes up to the working practices and factories, and what all of these different hair grades mean. It's been a long learning process — and an interesting one,” she tells R29.
For her business, Jonker has gone on a number of “hair travels” to Ukraine, Bali, China, the Philippines and more to investigate the industry. It’s allowed her to develop her own code of ethics when it comes to who she sources human hair from. “Hair has to be willingly given and donated, and must be fairly compensated for.” She states, “I even had a conversation whilst a lady from Vietnam who was having her hair cut. She was left with a little bob, instead [of her hair being shaved] directly from the scalp.”
Jonker is personally against the use of “temple hair” in India, where a lot of brands currently source their human hair. Thousands of Hindus go on pilgrimage every day, when they reach the holiest part of the temple and before entering, they shave their head. The temples store the hair in bundles from both men and women, and sell the hair to hair manufacturers via auction. It is assumed that these men and women are happy for the temples to do this because it allows the temples to offer those on pilgrimage free accommodation, education, medicine and food.
Yet it has been reported that temples are very wealthy and turn over millions annually selling human hair bundles. “I'm not Hindu, and it’s not my culture,” says Jonker, “so I personally don’t think it’s ethical for me to have that hair. The temple is the one that sells the hair to the big brands. And yes, they get the money, but the woman [who gave up her hair] doesn't get money at all.”
Are synthetic extensions an ethical alternative to human hair?
Synthetic hair extensions and wigs made from synthetic fibres such as nylon, polyester and acrylic are getting better. These days, synthetic wigs look far more real (or as they say in wig circles, “unclockable”) — and they are increasingly popular. For Black women who wear their hair in long box braids or crochet styles, synthetic hair extensions are also used to add length, colour and work as a protective style. They are significantly cheaper than human hair, too: right now, Amazon is selling a pretty convincing ombre wig for just £30.
For those who have difficulty reckoning with the human hair industry’s methods, synthetic hair feels like a no-brainer. Yet unfortunately, as Refinery29 reported, synthetic wigs are often quickly discarded and get sent to landfills, further contributing to our global waste problem.
“It's about how long of a lifecycle you have with that product,” says Moyo. “Let'ssay that synthetics are cheap. It's plastic, and you're using it two or three times and then throwing it away — that is actually really unsustainable for the planet. Whereas with real hair, you can use that for a year, two years, and even five years, depending on the quality of the hair.” Still, there is an increasing number of Black-owned synthetic hair extension brands trying to change the market values around synthetic hair extensions. Take US-based synthetic hair company Rebundle, for example, which sells plant-based hair.
It seems there is hope for synthetic hair yet. RadSwan, a company founded by Parisian blogger turned entrepreneur Freddie Harrel offers premium synthetic hair extensions that mimic afro hair textures without the 'plasticky' shine. For this hair extension brand, synthetic hair is best on all counts. “Radswan cares about its Black diasporic women and all the other women around the world. We have created synthetic hair wigs that can offer you an easier, cheaper and more realistic experience, without the 'dark side' of the industry and the wavering price points,” states Radswan's website. As for sustainability, the brand says that it aims to recycle synthetic hair that they collect from individuals. Caring for and reusing synthetic hair is another way to give them a longer lifespan. For example, brushing synthetic braiding hair out and reusing the hair multiple times is one way to be more sustainable.
Is the answer not wearing hair extensions at all?
There are various reasons why people want and will continue to wear hair extensions, including hair loss, alopecia and purely self-expression. To suggest the idea of simply not wearing hair extensions is ignoring people’s — especially Black women’s — very real need for them.
It's so important [to have this conversation, says Moyo, as it is estimated that Black women spend 13 times more on hair extensions and six times more on hair care compared to others. “Hair extensions are also an important part of our protective styling,” shares Moyo. “They're an important part of our expression, and I don't believe that we should be penalised for that.”
Jonker agrees: “There has been a stigma around Black women wearing hair extensions, from whether you can grow your own hair or your natural hair is 'ugly'. So we get defensive about that. To this day, I still have to defend my business because some people feel like I should just wear my natural hair — and I do. This is just how I prefer to wear it, it's a choice.”
“Whether I want to wake up and look like Naomi Campbell, Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong'o or just me, I think that versatility has always been a superpower of Black women,” adds Moyo. “The concept of wearing hair extensions has existed for hundreds of years. I think the first thing to know is that this is something which really started with our ancestors. Throughout Africa, the [concept] of protective styling using everything from yarn to synthetic hair, to sheep fibres has existed for hundreds of years.”
It’s true. While the hair weave was actually invented in 1951 by an African American woman named Christina Jenkins, the wearing of hair extensions has been recorded as far back as Ancient Egypt. In Namibia, the Mbalantu women are commonly referred to as the “braided Rapunzel women” after their long floor-length braids or ‘Eembuvi’. As part of a generations-old tradition, long sinew strands are attached to a girl's hair once they turn 16 to mark womanhood.
As I prepare to switch my hairstyle up with a fresh set of hair extensions, I am reminded that as a consumer, I have full control over where I spend my coins. I can wear hair extensions without guilt by doing research into a company's credibility, for instance. The About Us page is a great place to start, as is asking questions via social media or getting in touch with a representative through the Contact Us section. With more consumers demanding better from the hair extension industry, I am comforted that this issue is on the minds of Black female hair company CEOs — and they are working hard to set higher standards.