The Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, India, had a problem.
Thirty to forty million pilgrims visit the temple each year, and in a gesture of humility and sacrifice, 10% to 25% of them, men and women both, have their heads shaven. Every day, the Venkateswara Temple staff fills giant vats with human hair, and for a long time, its staff burned thousands of pounds of hair—a noxious process that produces toxic gases like ammonia and was eventually banned by the Indian government in the 1990s.
By then, however, they had discovered a new way to get rid of the hair: sell it for millions.
When fashion companies make wigs—and when stylists tape or weave hair extensions into customers’ hair in salons—they want to use real human hair. To get it, they rely on places like the Venkateswara Temple, which sells its hair in annual auctions. In 2014, fashion companies bid almost $12 million for what temple employees call “black gold.”
The Tirumala Temple auction is part of a multi-billion dollar market for human hair—a global endeavor that includes collecting long locks to make fashionable hairpieces and its more industrial counterpart of turning hair into fertilizers, stuffing for clothes, and even amino acids used in pizza dough.
Nearly everyone has hair they discard without a thought. Yet it can also be one of the world’s most precious resources, and businesses can’t get enough of it.
From Tirumala to the Salon
A quality wig made of human hair sells for thousands of dollars in the United States, and hair extensions made of real hair can sell for several hundred or thousand dollars. But it takes a lot of work to turn the hair of Venkateswara pilgrims into a luxury product.
When companies buy hair from the temple for as much as $700 per pound, it contains sweat, blood, and lice. The temple warehouses reek from mildew and fungus. Investigative journalist Scott Carney visited Tirumala and called the hair a “foul-smelling heap.” As 600 barbers each shave a head every 5 minutes, they leave bloody scalps and hair balls littering the floor.
It takes someone in the industry to recognize why the hair is so valuable. Only long women’s hair is sold at auction—the temple sells men’s hair at a pittance for industrial uses—and since many pilgrims come from humble, rural towns, they have not used shampoos or styled and treated their hair in ways that damage it.
The Venkateswara Temple. Photo by Chandrashekhar Basumatary
To transform the best (longest) hair from trash into treasure, teams of workers untangle the hair, sort it by length, pick out lice and other particles, wash and dry it, and dye it a variety of colors. Companies then either ship the hair out to salons where stylists will sew, tape, or bond the extensions into customers’ hair, or sew the hair into wigs.
The process is incredibly labor intensive. “To make a high-end wig,” says Mo Hefnawy of Lori’s Wigsite, one of many retailers of wigs made by Indian and Chinese manufacturers, “someone sat there with a needle and sewed a few hairs at a time. It takes 3 or 4 days.”
Retailers like Lori’s Wigsite sell wigs made of fake, synthetic hair, and they cost $250 where a human hair wig would cost $1,500. But synthetic wigs don’t last as long, can’t be styled, and look and feel less natural. Most people want wigs made of real hair, Hefnawy says, but Lori’s sells more synthetic wigs than human hair wigs because they are more affordable.
The majority of Lori’s customers suffer hair loss from chemotherapy or conditions like alopecia. A minority are religious women who buy wigs as an alternative to modestly hiding their hair, and some older men and women buy wigs to cover thinning hair.
For the moment, though, hair extensions are increasingly popular among young women who want to quickly change their hairstyle or buy the long, thick hair celebrated in shampoo commercials. Among other celebrities, Victoria Beckham, Beyonce, and Kylie Jenner of Kardashian fame are known for wearing extensions.
Prices have increased with popularity. In several burglaries of hair salons, thieves ignored cash registers and went straight for hair extensions worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When nonprofits like Locks of Love ask people to donate their hair (to make hairpieces for children suffering from hair loss), they are not asking because long hair is hard to find. The human hair market is well established, and anyone can go online and instantly order hair by the pound.
Locks of Love asks for donations because hair is so expensive that many patients can’t afford thousand dollar wigs.
The Secret Life of Hair
The market for human hair has always been a mechanism for getting hair from people in poor areas to those who need or want it in wealthier ones.
History is full of examples of human hair being treated as a valuable commodity. Archeologists have discovered human hair wigs held together with resin and beeswax in Ancient Egyptian tombs. Upper class men in 18th century Europe wore long periwigs made of human or horse hair, and thieves commonly worked in teams to steal and resell them. An observer of an annual “hair harvest” in a poor Italian village in the 19th century described seeing girls “sheared, one after the other, like sheep.” Their hair went to Parisian markets that sold 200,000 pounds of human hair each year.
A hair theft in progress
The difference today is that the market has changed with globalization. Hair does not move from provincial Europe to capital cities; it moves from poor countries to wealthy ones. The vast majority of hair and hair products come from India and China and are sold in the United States and Europe.
In the hair industry, no one bothers to equally celebrate each and every person’s hair. For them, hair is a product, and the way they talk about hair reflects economic and social realities—and made us squirm.
“Indian hair is best,” retailers and manufacturers told us without hesitation. They cite the strength of Indian hair and how plentiful it is thanks to places like the Venkateswara Temple. But its most valuable attribute is that it closely resembles caucasian hair. “Oriental hair is used,” one industry expert bluntly added, “because there is a lot of it.”
Hair flows from poor countries to rich countries, but when a woman with blond hair is willing to sell her hair, the market pays incredibly well. Destitute Russian women regularly sell their blond hair for fifty to several hundred dollars. Mo Hefnawy says he knows a young woman whom wig makers flew out from Indiana and paid $1,500 for her hair, which they made into an $8,000 wig.
Africa also bucks global trends: despite the prevalence of poverty in many countries, Africa is an importer of hair. Elaborate wigs may no longer separate royalty from commoners, but hair has not lost its political and economic relevance.
Projects like My Nappy Roots and Good Hair have explored the efforts that black people, especially women, go through to style their hair, and in particularly the time and expense of straightening their curly hair—often with the help of hair extensions. Responding to this question of why “women adopt a concept of ‘beauty’ that is not based on the natural characteristics of their hair,” Al Sharpton says in Good Hair, “We wear our economic oppression on our heads."
As a result, hair extensions and products are popular among African Americans and wealthy Africans, but hair traders have little interest in black hair.
Collecting Hair at Scale
If you ask people in the industry where they get human hair, they talk about temples in China and India like the Venkateswara Temple.
It’s no surprise they do; collecting hair from pilgrims is an elegant solution to manufacturers’ need for human hair. Shaving one’s head is a traditional, voluntary practice that avoids the exploitive undertones of desperate women selling their hair. Most pilgrims don’t know that the temple sells their hair. But we have not seen reports of religious leaders pocketing millions. The temple administrators have used the proceeds on gold wall panelling for the temple, but they say they primarily spend the money on charitable endeavors like feeding the needy and running hospitals.
Yet only a minority of hair comes from temples. In India, a regional Minister for Textiles and Commerce told The Guardian, “all the Indian temples together contribute only 20 out of every 100 locks of premium hair sold abroad.” The Minister added, “Where the rest comes from, we have no idea.” Retailers and wholesale providers we spoke to voiced similar uncertainty.
We do know that collecting hair is a large, decentralized undertaking that employs tens of thousands of people in India alone. Barber shops and salons collect and sell hair—both long hair sold to fashion companies and short hair sold cheaply to be used as stuffing, fertilizer, or, once broken down into component chemicals, in industrial uses ranging from food to pharmaceuticals. Waste pickers scrounge hair from trash and dumpsters. Hair traders visit villages—in a slum outside Chennai, a bell announces a trader’s arrival—to buy hair with either cash or trinkets and hair accessories.
The traders may buy hair that women have collected from combs and brushes, or the scenes may resemble the shearing of 19th century Italian villagers. No one can say exactly how often, but hair is not always sold willingly. Press has reported on husbands who receive $10 for their wives’ hair. One Indian woman told The Guardian, “I was held down by a gang of men who hacked at my hair… the police don't care, they will do nothing to protect women.” In Russia, prison wardens have admitted to forcibly cutting female inmates’ hair in order to sell it.
Whether it’s people scrounging hair from dumpsters or men forcing women to give up their hair, the hair business can be a dirty one.
So far, the hair industry has not had its ethically-sourced moment.
American customers are typically unconcerned about the origins of extensions, the founder of a hair extensions trade group told the New York Times, other than to ask if they are hygienic. For retailers and manufacturers, the demand for hair makes it a financial necessity not to ask too many questions.
"The hair business is unlike any other," the owner of an Indian hair-exporting business told journalist Scott Carney. "In any other business, buying a commodity is easy; it's the selling it to retailers that is difficult. Here it's all reversed. It's simple to sell hair, just difficult to buy it."
Better synthetic hair is coming. As China and India’s economic growth has reduced poverty, hair donors have been harder to find, which has increased prices and pushed companies to research alternatives. In the last 5 years, Mo Hefnawy of Lori’s Wigsite tells us, progress has been made on making synthetic wigs thicker and more heat-resistant. “I’d give it a few more years and they will have it,” he says.
Until then, though, a resource everyone has growing on the top of their head will remain a secretively lucrative commodity.