Wigs 'n' Weaves: Human Hair's Journey in the Global Market

The market for real human hair – recycled into wigs and weaves – is worth more than $80 million last year. (Reuters Photo/Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

By : Diella Yasmine | on 2:51 PM July 26, 2018
Category : Life & Style, Fashion & Beauty

Jakarta. When you get a haircut at a salon, have you ever asked the proprietor where your hair goes after they cut it? Does it go straight to the bin? Do you ever consider the possibility that your lovely locks may end up in hair factories and then on other people's heads as wigs or hair extensions?

In countries like India, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa, real human hair is actually a big business.

The hair on your salon's floor could very well be exported and then recycled into wigs, weaves or extensions that fetch a pretty price in the beauty industry.

Compared to other countries in the world, the real human hair market in Indonesia is still just a niche, but it's growing.

According to data from World Top Export, international sales of exported human hair were valued at a total of $81.2 million last year.

Asian countries exported the most amount of human hair, with shipment valued at $44.5 million – 54.7 percent of the total global sales.

Last year, Indonesia was the sixth highest exporter of human hair in the world, shipping $1.5 million worth of shiny black locks.

Thailand and Singapore have been the top two human hair exporters globally since 2013.

Asian Is the Best

International celebrities and hair salons across the globe apparently love Asian hair for its luxurious feel and great natural shine.

It also holds its natural look pretty well even after a few washes.

Asian hair is also known for its flexibility – easy to heat and style, curled and colored. It can also be bleached easily for the European market.

"Real Asian hair is light, airy, full of bounce and easy to style. The hair doesn’t tangle and shed easily, which explains why it's so famous in the market," said Kartika Winata, a Jakarta-based personal hair stylist who has worked in many salons in the US.

In Indonesia, real human hair is becoming a big enough commodity that criminals are targeting it.

Detik reported in 2014 that police in Bandung received reports of a mysterious hair thief who sneakily cut women’s hair in public minivans.

Similar incidents have also happened in India. According to a BBC report last year, 50 women in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Rajasthan had their hair chopped off while they were unconscious.

Indian hair is favored – it's the most widely used real human hair in the US, UK and South Africa – for its Caucasian-like texture.

According to another BBC report, the hair market in India – where one kilogram of shaved hair can fetch $20 – is worth more than $250 million annually.

Indonesia's Hair Hunters

In Indonesia, many hairdressers collect and sell hair to earn an extra income on the side.

There are also hair peddlers, who collect bags of human hair from salons to resell.

Every Friday, 36-year-old Tia – not her real name – would visit hair salons near Kelapa Gading in North Jakarta to buy human hair wholesale.

The price of the hair depends on the length and quality. Tia said she pays between Rp 100,000 ($7) and Rp 150,000 for one kilogram of good quality human hair.

"I prefer to buy hair from more upmarket salons because I know it’s clean and free from dandruff or lice," Tia said.

Tia then resells the hair for Rp 500,000 per kilogram. Longer hair – 30 to 50 centimeters – can get more, up to Rp 1 million per kilogram.

Wati Hardiniastuti regularly buys real human hair for her beauty store in Tanah Abang Market that specializes in hair extensions.

Wati's store sells its own brand of clip-in and semi-permanent hair extensions. She also sells wigs and hair buns known as sanggul made from real and synthetic hair.

Wati said she spends up to Rp 8 million every month to buy 25 to 35 kilograms of real human hair. She refused to tell us where she sources her human hair.

"Synthetic hair is also popular, but it can’t be styled, heated, curled or straightened. It can look unnatural since it's so frizzy," she said.

Wati's hair extensions, wigs and sanggul cost anywhere from Rp 350,000 to as much as Rp 5 million for ones made with real human hair.

Wati said she sells up to Rp 100 million worth of human hair a month to clients from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia.

Virgin Hair

But the most valued, and the most expensive, human hair is what the industry calls "pure virgin hair," or human hair that has not been chemically treated, dyed, bleached or permed.

Virgin hair is revered for its durability – it can last for up to 2 years – and flexibility. It also doesn't tangle as much and blends in well with your natural hair.

This is why hair stores and factories try to source their hair from small villages in underdeveloped countries like Indonesia.

"Collecting hair seems like an easy task, but collecting good quality human hair could be quite a hassle. Virgin hair is difficult to find in big cities. That’s why people go to small villages – where women use less chemicals to treat their hair," Kartika said.

In some online shops, 100-gram bundles of virgin hair is sold for $160 to $600 each. The most popular hair comes from India, Malaysia, Peru and Brazil.

Mane Investment

People who regularly use wigs and hair extensions (also called "weaves") say the ones that are made of real human hair are "investment pieces."

Anastasia Hertriana, an Indonesian studying electrical engineering in Texas, said she used to spend $100 a month on hair care.

But the cost doubled when she started wearing weaves regularly.

Echa – Anastasia's nickname – started using hair weaves in 2016. Since then, she regularly shops for real human hair extensions – especially ones from Brazil and Peru.

She said her weaves costs more than $600 for a pack of four bundles. She has to buy 28-inch and 26-inch extensions to achieve her voluminous hair style.

"I see [real human] hair as an investment," she said. "With a good care, I can use my weaves for at least two to three years."

"The more expensive the weaves, the better the quality," Echa said.

"There are websites to sell preloved weaves, too. When I get bored of my old ones, I can just sell them for quite a good price," she said.

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