Last week, newspapers around the world reported that a 12 year old girl from Brazil was planning to cut off her super-long hair and sell it for use as extensions. Can the hair on our heads really be that valuable?
Dubbed the "real life Rapunzel," Natasha Moraes de Andrade, who lives in one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest areas and has never had a haircut, told the world's press how she hopes her five feet of hair will rake in over £3,000.
Salons have always been happy to pay cold, hard cash for real human hair, due to the demand for 'real hair'extensions," says Stephanie Stevenson, who founded www.salonconfidential.co.uk and has investigated the real hair trade in China. "The demand for human hair currently exceeds availability, and has done so for several years. The main advantage is the ability to colour the extensions to match your own hair. You simply cannot colour artificial hair in the same way."
Human hair - or money for old rope?
The bad news is that with real hair selling for significant sums, there's never been a shortage of shrewd operators keen to jump on the bandwagon. "Human hair has increased in value and as I saw firsthand in China, a corrupt business system has evolved to meet the suppliers' orders. I saw the mixing of other fibres with human hair to create the same weight, allowing the prices to remain the same. But the customer isn't getting 100% human hair and doesn't even know — I saw rope, plastic and animal hair all being used. The realisation only comes when the customers curl or straighten the hair and the hair starts to resemble the feel of carpet fibre, which makes it unmanageable."
However, if you thinking that living in the UK means we don't have to worry about such issues, think again. "China is the biggest manufacturer of hair extensions and therefore has the highest demand for human hair," explains Stephanie. "The places that buy the most hair and which are fuelling the demand are America and Europe - it's a global marketplace."
In that case, why don't we just source the hair closer to home? Are those of us blessed with long locks really walking around with a veritable fortune sprouting from our heads? Sadly, those living in the western world simply don't have the right quality hair. "Indian Remy hair is the most popular - it suits European women's hair type and is usually more than 18 or 22 inches long," says Stephanie. "It's rarely been coloured or processed which means that it's in good, strong condition. Selling hair has become part of India's commerce so women know that if they keep their hair and keep it healthy, it can be sold easily."
From Russia with love
Russian hair is also highly sought after. "Diet greatly influences both hair growth and diet," says Tatiana Karelina, founder of Tatiana Hair Extensions. The best Russian hair comes from small rural communities where the diet, although simple, is high in nutrients and vitamins and low in sugar, salts and animal fats.
The fact that the hair often comes from rural communities million of miles away means that, despite the high standards of salon owners in the western world, there are various processes the hair must go through before it's considered fit for use, all of which adds to the cost. "In the UK, we expect the hair we use for extensions to be in excellent condition - usually virgin hair which means no previous colour," says Stephanie Stevenson. "However, many of those living in poorer countries simply don't have the luxury of conditioners, hair treatments and the best shampoos. Often hair is dirty and unwashed, so the condition is perhaps not what we would expect in the western world. For this reason, once the hair is cut off, it's treated and cleaned with harsh chemicals so it's clear of any nits, fungus and dirt."
Online auction or stylish salon?
These days, there are various ways those aiming for follicular fabulousness can source real hair extensions, ranging from hair auctions to paying top dollar for extensions at salons, although there's one problem that anyone hoping to invest in real hair extensions will have to face. "It's almost impossible to trace hair back to the original owner," says Stephanie, who adds that whilst finding out where extensions purchased at salons originate from can be tricky, the alternatives aren't necessarily preferable.
"There are online hair auctions popping up, where people advertise their own hair by posting a picture, then you can bid for the hair, which in a way is more ethical and traceable, but who's to say the hair you buy is from that person? Is the picture real?" Opting to get extensions from a salon doesn't guarantee quality, either. "There are no regulations as such, and not one centralised governing body that checks the whole process which means that this trade will continue until guidelines are put in place," warns Stephanie.
Although in the UK, real hair extensions cost between £500 to £1,200, those who are lucky enough to have the kind of hair that's required shouldn't expect to become overnight millionaires. "With regards to the price Natasha Moraes de Andrade is after - £3,000 - it's highly unlikely she will get this amount," says Tatiana. "The whole pony tail is likely to weigh no more than 1kg, although she would get a length premium as hair over 30 inches is rare. Assuming she leaves 12 inches after (157cm = 65inches) that's enough hair for one 30in ponytail and one 22 inch ponytail. My best guess is she's unlikely to get more than £1888 for her hair."
That might well sound like a sizeable sum but bear in mind that we're talking about a girl who's grown her hair for 12 years - hair which is, in reality, unlikely to be of the right quality when it comes to using it for hair extensions. And, considering that Natasha admitted to spending hundreds of pounds a year on shampoo, we won't be giving up our day jobs to become professional hair growers just yet...