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Are hair extensions made from human corpses? The Beauty Brains Show episode 29

Does hair for wigs and hair extensions really come from human corpses? What’s the difference between synthetic hair and the real deal? What’s the best kind of hair you can buy? This week Randy and I expose the deep dark secrets of the hair collection industry. Plus: I challenge Randy to a new game we call “Name That Formula.”

Click below to play Episode 29 or click “download” to save the MP3 file to your computer.

Show notes

Name that Formula

This is a new game where I read ingredients from a 1937 cosmetic formulation book and Randy has to guess the product. Listen to the show and you can play along.

Question of the week: Is nail polish good for nails?

Helene asks: How can I save money on hair extensions?

Biology of human hair

Understanding how human hair is structured helps you see why synthetic hair is so different. The hair itself consists of mostly of protein that is organized into 3 structures.

  1. The outermost part of the hair which we are most familiar with is called the cuticle which consists of 8 to 10 layers of overlapping hard flat cells that resembles the shingles on a roof. They serve the same function as shingles which is to protect what’s underneath.
  2. The inner layer of hair is called cortex and it consists of long bundles of protein fibers which gives hair its strength. This is also where the tiny particles of melanin pigment reside.
  3. The third, and frankly the least important structure of hair, is called the medulla. It is little more than a hollow space in the center of the fiber. It is not even present in all hair fibers and it is thought to be a vestige from when we had hair covering our bodies because the airspace provides additional insulation. Think of the quill of a porcupine that has a large vacuole in the center

Where does human hair come from?

There are companies known as “hair collectors” who specialize in sourcing human hair.  Despite what you might have read these companies do NOT harvest hair from corpses! They get it from people who sell their hair. (Just like some people donate their hair.)

Most human hair used for weaves and wigs is obtained from Asia (perhaps most often China, India, and Korea) That’s partly due to economic reasons and because of the physical properties of hair from that part of the world – tends to be very straight. Hair from Africa and the Middle East tends to be kinky/curly which limits its use in wigs and extensions. In India, a large portion of the hair is sourced from Hindu temples where hair is donated for religious practices, particularly in honor of the Hindu God Vishnu.

This is an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually and as you might imagine any time you’re trafficking in human “byproducts” it’s not without its controversies. A research paper titled, “The Zombie Commodity: Hair and the Politics of its Globalization” discusses the impact of this practice on “first and third world identity structures” as well as “grotesque beauty ideals.” But politics aside…if you are going to buy human hair for your extensions you need to understand that not all hair is created equal.

Types of human hair for sale

Several factors impact the quality and price of human hair:

Hair processing:
Virgin hair is hair that hasn’t been colored or processed in any way. Chemically process hair will behave differently.

Cuticle quality:
“Premium” hair is the most popular and commonly available even though it’s the cheapest.  The problem with premium hair is that the roots and tips of hairs are all mixed up. which causes tangling. That’s because cuticles grow in one direction and if you have a bundle of hair where some are going from root to tip and others are going tip to root, the cuticles will snag each other and make a unmanageable mess. But it’s cheaper to sell this way because you don’t have to take so much time sorting the hair to put it in the right order.

“Tangle-free” premium hair: this is obtained by chemically removing the cuticles using an acid bath. This process reduces the friction among hairs, leaving the remains tangle-free hair. In order to give the appearance of natural healthy hair, a laminate is applied to the hair to give it a shiny and silky look. Of course since you’ve artificially altered the hair it won’t lay the same way. For example, you need the cuticle to give you volume (and to protect the hair from breaking.)

How the hair is bundled:
Remy is almost all of the strands (e.g. in one weft) are strictly organised with the roots in one direction and the tip to the opposite end. This gives you tangle free but again it’s more expensive.

Single drawn is of a slightly lower quality than double-drawn hair. The hairs will have up to a 2″ difference in the tips; that is, some hairs will be up to 2″ shorter than their original lengths.

Double drawn indicates that the collected hair of a certain length has all of the shorter hairs in the bundle manually removed twice, hence the ‘double’ drawn. This means that hair extensions that are double drawn will have (nearly) as many hair strands at one end as the other and appear much thicker and not wispy at the ends. This process is very laborious, and therefore makes the extensions very expensive.

If you’re buying hair for DIY extensions make SURE you understand exactly what you’re getting!

Top 10 strange uses for human hair

Listen to the show for some bizarre uses for human hair like making chairs, bikinis, and soy sauce!

How is synthetic hair made?

You can save a lot of money if you buy synthetic hair instead of the real stuff. However, there is a trade off in quality.

In general, synthetic doesn’t look quite like human hair so you won’t get as natural of a look. In addition, it can be stiff and move differently from human hair. Also, synthetic hair is easily damaged by friction and heat styling so you’re limited in how you can style this kind of fake fur.

The cheapest synthetic hair is made of fine plastic fibers which are composed of low-grade acrylic. The plastic is heated and then extruded (pushed through little tubes) and then strung into strands to make individual hair fibers. These fibers are then laced or tied into extensions and hairpieces. This is the “bottom of the barrel” kind of hair that you typically see in costume wigs, and it has a very waxy and plastic appearance.

The more upscale versions of synthetic hair have better texture and luster . These are made use a combination of polymers modacrylic, vinyl chloride, vinylidene chloride, polyester, and nylon. And they are formed with more complex processes involving volatile solvents and a spinneret to form multiple continuous filaments. Both, monofilament fibers and polyfilament fibers. This kind of synthetic hair can be made straight or kinky/curly and with texture ranging form silky/smooth to coarse. In addition, the finished product is flame resistant, has high tensile strength, and appropriate refraction properties so it looks much more natural.

There’s even one type, called Futura, can withstand heat styling up to 400 degrees F and is more durable than human hair. However it can’t be dyed so you color choices are limited.

DIY extensions

Here’s a great website called Instructables which provides detailed instructions along with pictures. But here’s the quick version:

Gather your materials
In addition to the hair you’ll need 15 or 20 wig clips. You may not need this many but if you use too few the extensions are more likely to fall out.
Scissors to cut the strips of hair into smaller sections. Needle and thread for sewing the hair to the clips and a measuring tape.

Measure and Make the Pieces
Since each strip of hair is very thin you’ll want to layer two or three on top of one another and then stitch them together.

Attach hair to the clips
You do this by sewing the hair to the clips. You’ll want to use 2 or 3 clips for each section of hair depending on how wide you made them.

Insert the pieces and style
This involves pulling your real hair up and out of the way. Then you clip in the sides and back pieces, then let your hair down and style it so the extensions blend in. And there you have it – low cost DIY extensions that are 100% corpse free!

The Beauty Brains bottom-line

You certainly have the resources available to do your own hair extensions. The question is do you have the skill to manipulate the hair or do you have a friend who can do it for you? And just be careful that you’re buying the hair from a reputable source in that you know exactly what to look for otherwise you may end up with less than desirable results. Of course if you accidentally buy some bad hair you can always turn into a pillow.

LIL buy it now button

Buy your copy of It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick to learn more about:

  • Clever lies that the beauty companies tell you.
  • The straight scoop of which beauty myths are true and which are just urban legends.
  • Which ingredients are really scary and which ones are just scaremongering by the media to incite an irrational fear of chemicals.
  • How to tell the difference between the products that are really green and the ones that are just trying to get more of your hard earned money by labeling them “natural” or “organic.

Click here for all the The Beauty Brains podcasts.

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • ravin May 7, 2014, 3:04 am

    Thanks, picked up a lot.

  • Christina May 8, 2014, 3:21 pm

    This was a great podcast!

    I happen to be a hair piece junkie. My college years I did Musical Theatre and got addicted to how great it was to change your hair color and style day to day.

    Now, on random days I toss on a wig or extentions and notice a huge difference in quality from where I buy it and how much it costs.

    This was a fun podcast to listen to and gives me great insight as to why a few pieces I have purchased for a great price ended up looking like Chubacca’s tangled up cousin after a few uses!

    • Randy Schueller May 8, 2014, 5:15 pm

      Hmmm. Now I’m wondering about a line of Star Wars themed hair and skin care products…

      Chubacca Hair Extensions
      Yoda Wrinkle Cream
      Darth Vader Dark Spot Remover

      • Christina May 8, 2014, 6:02 pm

        With the new breakthrough ingredient that will make you look light years younger: C-3PO Peptide. :)

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