Spotting a woman with glossy, hip-length locks can cause instant hair envy. Pop culture has programmed us to covet luscious long strands, from Baywatch babes bounding along the beach in slow motion, hair flowing behind them, to lingerie-clad models strutting their loose waves down the Victoria’s Secret runway. And in the 21st-century, a down-to-your-butt ’do doesn’t even require super hair growth genes or a bottomless supply of supplements; with enough money, anyone afford to add instant length to their locks with hair extensions.
Human hair extensions, rather than its synthetic counterpart, have become the go-to for women looking to enhance their appearance, with remy virgin (unprocessed, where all cuticles flow in the same direction) hair being the gold standard. These long, silky strands of hair are so desirable because they can be seamlessly worked into a person’s existing hair to look natural. But somehow along the way, women have forgotten that the real human hair being installed on their heads is just that — human hair that grew on, and was cut off of, a real human woman somewhere else in the world.
The controversial world of harvesting virgin hair isn’t new — The New York Times, BBC and Allure have all reported on the exploitation and mistreatment of women and their hair for years — but Refinery29 has recently peeled back the curtain even further, offering a more in-depth look at the often dark world of remy virgin extensions.
“Most people do not know where their hair comes from,” Riqua Hailes, who owns a hair extension bar in Los Angeles, told Refinery29. “Until it’s regulated, you’re not gonna have a concrete answer of exactly what’s going on.”
Much of this desirable hair currently comes from three parts of the world — Southeast Asia, Africa and Ukraine — and generally, the women whose hair is being harvested all have one thing in common: they’re vulnerable, and many desperate to make a couple bucks (literally a few dollars for years of hair growth) to make ends meet. Some even have their lives threatened.
So while hair like Salma Hayek’s could be in the cards if you’re willing to drop a thousand bucks on virgin remy hair extensions, the origin of said strands might have a sinister past.
But there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel thanks to companies providing ethically-sourced hair, like Dan Choi of Remy New York who launched his hair extension business in 2017 and provides meaningful compensation for the women involved, as well as transparency in terms of how and where the hair is harvested.
“Our prices are anywhere from five to 10 times our competitors, which is why we’ve received dangerous threats,” Choi told R29, referring to how much he pays women for their hair. On average, Choi pays $90 per transaction, depending on the quality, weight and length of hair.
While Choi is moving the human hair industry in the right direction, businesses like his are few and far between. Next time you’re looking to add a couple of inches to your current cut, consider doing extra research into where your newly added strands are coming from; that way, you can look good and feel good about your latest beauty choice.