Monday, June 28, 2010

From food to fashion, the thriving market in human hair

From food to fashion, the thriving market in human hair

The trade in human hair is a growing - and very lucrative - market, with a new film by US comedian Chris Rock looking at the industry. But what can human hair be used for?

There's no such thing as a bad hair day for some people.

Not for the chef using it to get the perfect pizza crust, or the fashion designer charging up to £20,000 for clothes created using human hair. Certainly not for the hairdresser charging up to £2,500 for extensions.

Human hair is now big business in the UK and US and other parts of the world. It's also extremely lucrative for some. American comedian Chris Rock explores the international trade in his new documentary film Good Hair, released in this country on Friday.

Last year alone nearly £15m worth of treated human hair - it has been washed and sometimes dyed - was imported into the UK, according to Customs and Excise. It comes mainly from India, China and Europe. On top of that almost £10m worth of wigs, false beards, eyebrows and eyelashes made from the stuff were also imported. Those in the trade estimate the hair extension industry alone is worth £60m in this country, although there are no official figures.

When it comes to our tresses, the rarest and most expensive is natural blonde hair, says Des Tobin, a professor of cell biology at Bradford University, who has studied hair and the trade.

"About 90% of the world's population has dark brown hair," he says. "It's actually really hard to get natural, adult hair that is blonde. The rarity of hair colour will dictate the price. Blonde hair can cost up to three times as much as dark hair."

European hair, which tends to be finer and so easier to work with, is more sought after in the UK. The price for 100g of blonde, European hair is about £1,000.

So what is our hair - right down to the clippings from a hairdresser's floor - used for?


The thought may be an appetite killer, but human hair can be used to make an additive that is found in foods such as the dough for pizza crusts and bagels.

Your mop top is a rich source of L-cysteine, an amino acid that can be extracted from hair and used as a flavour enhancer or flour improver. It is sometimes listed as E920 on food packaging. As well as being found in dough it can be used to give food a meat-like flavour, especially in dog food.

Ten to 15 years ago human hair was a main source of L-cysteine. Producers, mainly based in China, extracted it from hair clippings from salons, even strands collected from hairbrushes.

But as people became more aware of what was in their food, they simply didn't like the thought of human hair having anything to do with what they ate. More Chinese people also started perming their hair, which made extracting the amino acid more difficult.

"As more people found out where L-cysteine came from they thought 'yuck, human hair, don't fancy that'," says a spokesman for Premium Ingredients, a major distributor of ingredients for the food, fragrance and pharmaceutical industries.

"It was also extracted from mainly Chinese hair because it is straight, making the process much easier and cheaper. But more and more people started using perm lotions which made the process more complicated and costly."

Now L-cysteine comes mainly from chicken and duck feathers, which can be collected in larger quantities than hair. In recent years it has also started to be manufactured synthetically. Premium Ingredients, for one, no longer uses human hair.

"People find this more palatable," says the spokesman. The synthetic stuff can also be eaten by vegans and is considered by most to be halal and kosher.


In 10 years we'll all be wearing clothes made of human hair, says designer Charlie Le Mindu. We just need to get our heads round the fact. One person who already has is pop singer Lady Gaga, who has sported some of Le Mindu's creations.

"Human hair is beautiful to wear and it's so interesting to work with," he says. "People just need to get over the fact they are wearing something from their body. They seem to think it is still living and that freaks them out."

From hair pieces and hats, to whole outfits, Le Mindu charges up to £20,000 for his creations. They have been exhibited in London's V&A museum and featured in Vogue magazine. And where the fashion industry goes, the rest of us usually follow.

He prefers to use European hair for his designs, which can be used and treated in more ways. Indian and Chinese hair tends to be stronger and harder to manipulate.

"Once people get their heads round wearing human hair I think it will become mainstream," he says. "It will be like wearing fur, a luxury."

Some less scrupulous people in the fashion industry also uses human hair to thicken the pile of fur coats. It means coats can be made for less money.


BP's ruptured oil well in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted a very environmentally-friendly use for human hair - as a mop for the crude oil.

Each hair follicle has an enormous surface area and is "spiky", so the oil "sticks" to it. This is because it is adsorbent, not absorbent like a sponge. It's why we wash our hair, because it collects the oils our bodies produce. It is also the case with fur and wool.
Hair is an extremely efficient material for taking in all kinds of oils including petroleum," says Lisa Gautier, founder of the ecological charity Matter of Trust, which runs an international Hair for Oil Spills programme.

The hair is stuffed into nylon tights to make "booms", which are shaped like sausages. It is also packed together as mesh-covered hair mats. These help soak up the mess in oil disasters.

The Hair for Oil Spills is an international programme that collects off-cuts from hair salons and pet groomers, sheep farmers and individuals from around the world.

It says more than 370,000 salons and pet groomers worldwide have taken part in the operation to mop up the oil still being spewed out off the coast of Louisiana. The charity says in just one month enough hair, fur and wool was donated to make 25 miles of booms.

The idea of using human hair to mop up oil spills was the brain child of US hair stylist Phil McCory. Watching the Exxon Valdez disaster unfold on TV in 1989, he noticed how hard it was for volunteers to clean oil from otters because it was trapped in their fur. He tested to see if it was the same with human hair and it was.


Yak wool hair extensions - probably not what you paid for but what you possibly might get. Maybe one of the biggest indications of the money to be made from human hair extensions is the fact that crooks are now trying to cash in. Fakes, made from yak wool, are being sold to unsuspecting clients.

"It just shows you how lucrative the market is when people try to make some fast money," says Nev Mehmet, whose company Wonderful Hair imports the human variety for cosmetic extensions.

The explosion in the popularity of extensions is largely down to endorsements from celebrities like Cheryl Cole. No longer a luxury of the rich and famous, extensions using human hair are now available on most High Streets.

Like many other importers, Mr Mehmet gets his "ethically-sourced" hair from sales by temples in India. The practice of Hindu pilgrims shaving their heads has created a multi-million pound business. The religious ritual called "tonsuring" symbolises the pilgrim's desire to overcome their ego. Millions of devotees shave their heads each year and it is sold at auctions. The money made is said to be ploughed back into charitable foundations.

More often than not the hair is bought by Italian importers, who wash and process it to make it ready for another person's head. It is then imported into the UK by the likes of Mr Mehmet. Hair is bought in weight and length, the longer hair being more expensive.

Most human hair is exported from India and China, but Indian hair is preferred because it is finer and less coarse. Even easier to work with is European hair.

To buy the hair to add extensions to a head of shoulder-length hair costs an importer roughly £250, a salon then charges anything up to £2,500. It can take an experienced stylist up to four hours, depending on which technique they use.

There is definitely money to be made and more and more people are cashing in. There are even websites to advertise your flowing locks for sale. So next time you're having a hair cut, maybe you should catch the clippings.


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