Hair extensions are a popular and expensive accessory in the UK – but many women have no idea where they come from and the painstaking process it takes to make them.
Britain, the third largest importer in the world, buys 43 million tonnes of human hair a year.
That’s enough to cover two million heads, or stretch around the world 3,200 times.
But very few British women who wear hair extensions have given more than a fleeting thought to where they come from — or, more alarmingly, from whom.
Here, we trace the astonishing, and at times disturbing, journey of a set of extensions from their donor — a destitute young woman in the slums of India — to the well‑heeled clientele of a British hairdresser . . . and reveal the truth about the multi-million-pound hair trade.
THE SHAVEN HEAD OF A ‘VIRGIN’ DONOR IN INDIA
At Yadagirigutta Temple in southern India, poor women wait patiently in line for their heads to be shaved.
Most have never coloured, blow-dried or even cut their locks, and this so-called ‘virgin hair’ is particularly prized by the barbers, who will take just five minutes to cut it off with steel blades.
Among them is Lavanya Kakala, a dignified 28-year-old in a deep pink sari who has just had her waist-length hair shorn. She will receive nothing in return — and insists she wants nothing.
One woman told her: ‘Hair is a woman’s beauty. When she gives it to God, her beauty goes straight to him.’
SHADY DEALERS WHO TARGET THE POOR
The temples are far from the only players in this international trade.
More contentious is the rise of hair dealers, who travel around Asia and Eastern Europe offering destitute young women a pittance for their locks.
In India, they’ve been known to target men, offering them £6 if they persuade their wives to sell their hair.
There have been reports of husbands forcing their wives to do so, and of women being attacked and shaven by gangs.
Slum children have been tricked into having their heads shorn in exchange for toys.
‘I was held down by a gang of men who hacked at my hair,’ one girl said. ‘I know of other women who have been blackmailed and threatened.’
PRICE FEEDS A FAMILY FOR THREE WEEKS
Hair is sold by the kilogram to wholesalers, many in the U.S., where it’s packed, labelled and stored ready for distribution.
This is where the real money is: the Asian factories are paid a fraction of what the wholesalers make from British salons.
Gloria King, a wholesaler running a company called Egovan, says she has enough hair in stock to ship 10kg to Britain at any time.
‘These are very poor people,’ she says of her suppliers. ‘With the $45 we pay them, they can feed their family for three weeks.’