It's Really Racist: 5 Sad Facts About The Human Hair Market
When times get tough, you can always comfort yourself with the knowledge that, should it come to it, you have two perfectly good kidneys to sell. But you don't even have to go the illicit route to literally sell your body these days, and we're not just talking about plasma or genetic material: Human hair can be a surprisingly lucrative harvest if you get hooked up with the right wig-maker. That's where someone like Carol, a professional hair broker (yes, that's a thing), comes in. She told us ...
Most People Are Selling Their Hair Out Of Desperation
People don't generally sell their hair because they're trying to get a few extra bucks of fun money. Most of them -- usually women -- are trying to survive college or keep their families afloat, and it gets depressing to witness day after day. I still have emails from a woman who started haggling by the inch. She started at a few hundred for her hair, but we were overstocked as it was, so she kept lowering the price until she said, "Two inches. I need $40. Please." And we couldn't accept it.
"OK, two inches plus Bio-Dome on LaserDisc."
Negotiating sales in person is even worse. We need to get pictures and, if possible, a hair sample from people who approach us online, but in person we see the hair in front of us. Some people are obviously living paycheck-to-paycheck, and some are homeless. The minimum length we accept is six inches, so some offer to shave their head right there.
"I'm sure if I really dig my knife in, I can get you at least an extra half-inch ..."
You might think we take one look at the woeful scalps of these unfortunates and beat them out of the shop with a broom, Dickens-style, but a lot of homeless people have colors we want, and although they may not have shampooed their hair for weeks, they probably haven't dyed it, either -- we can always wash it. At my company at least, some of the best hair comes from people with nowhere else to turn. There was a homeless woman who came in with two feet of virgin steel-gray hair ("virgin" is what you call hair that hasn't been treated or dyed). Older people usually don't grow their hair very long, but she did, and gray hair is very in right now. She did a victory dance in the lobby when we gave her $600 (minus a cleaning fee, of course).
If You Donate Your Hair To A Charity, They're Probably Tossing It In The Trash
For people who aren't desperate but just feel like getting a haircut for a cause, nonprofit organizations who make free or cheap wigs for cancer patients are somewhat more popular than that lady hovering around the red-light district in Les Miserables. However, the odds of your hair actually becoming a wig that actually gets put on a sick person's head are pretty slim.
You're better off just letting your stalker have it.
This is because this kind of charity is often very inefficient. It's great that they're doing it for free, but the side effect is that they'll never have the resources (or financial incentive) to make sure their precious collected hair gets into the hands of a person who needs it. A private business charges for the wigs but also lives and dies on their ability to get hair into the hands of a happy customer.
Take Locks Of Love for example -- the most well-known of these charities. It receives more than 104,000 donations a year ... and tosses out about 80 percent of them. Some of the rest gets sold to cover administrative costs. So it's great that they're able to serve people who can't normally afford wigs, but the fact that people donate instead of sell actually makes the human hair shortage even worse.
In economics, this is called a "screwed if you do, screwed if you don't" market.
I had one regular client with beautiful virgin strawberry blonde hair. One of my wigmakers loved it, paid us top dollar for it every time, and even called us up when I hadn't sent any of her hair over in a while. When I called the woman, I found out she had donated to a local cancer wig charity ... and that they'd thrown her hair away because it wouldn't match up with any other donation they had to make a wig.
My buyer was willing to pay $1,000 for that hair. My client actually would have done more good if she'd sold the hair to me and then just donated the money to charity.
You Need Pristine Hair To Turn A Profit
One of the biggest challenges in this industry is finding hair that hasn't been changed, the "virgin hair" I mentioned above. There just isn't much of it out there; many people perm, dye, or bleach their hair, and it isn't always on purpose. I've had to turn away women whose hair was bleached by the sun.
There's a reason for this, and it's not just because there's not a lot of demand for the Jersey look. Damaged natural hair wigs go for way less -- usually around $100. If hair's dyed, it can become discolored over time, and the resulting wig can become a two-tone rat's nest of shame. Straightened or permed hair becomes weak and can break -- remember, the goal is for this to last years without it turning into a "Nick Nolte mugshot" situation.
Even regular styling can be a problem. If you blow-dry or straighten your hair constantly, we always know. Burning your hair makes it turn an entirely different color, usually too brown.
"Just microwaving from now on, got it."
Burnt hair is also too brittle and in general just looks terrible. We even know when sellers don't eat meat, because of how much less hair they have. Whenever a younger woman tries to sell her hair in person and it has a lot less thickness and shine, we know she's a vegan who's not taking her vitamins.
But don't lose heart, raver kids: Damaged hair can occasionally be sold, and even be enormously profitable, if we have a specific, urgent request. For example, we once had a request come in from a swimmer. I suspect she was an Olympian, but all I knew for certain was she was brunette. She'd had to cut her hair really short because her swim cap bulged out too much, and she was upset and desperate to hide her new 'do from the public. The wig company she turned to practically begged every hair-buyer I know for chlorine-damaged brunette hair longer than 12 inches. The price for that type of hair is usually low, but because of the short turnaround (she needed her wig immediately), the price doubled. We managed to find a single suitable donor and contributed to half the wig, which was a nice payday for us.
It's A Pretty Racist Business (Thanks To Supply And Demand)
Technically speaking, there's a demand for every color. But the most-requested color -- black -- is also the cheapest. There are so many people selling their dark locks in Brazil, China, and India that it's devalued the hair. High-quality wigs can go for thousands of dollars, but a shorter one of the same quality made of Brazilian black hair can be yours for $26. Even for virgin black hair, the profit margins are so low we only ever break even. Unless someone is offering us Remy black hair ("Remy" is the highest quality and generally means that all the hair was collected from the same donor at the same length) that is more than 18 inches long or a special type that happens to be in demand, we pass.
"Don't hate me because my hair market isn't saturated."
Purely from a demand perspective, hair from a white person is better in almost every way. There's a lot more color, it's usually straighter, and compared to overseas hair, it's much stronger. Is that racist? Yes, it is, and I have plenty of black and Hispanic would-be sellers who will tell you so, loudly. I generally don't get the chance to sit them down and explain the weird nuances of the global human-hair market.
And it is a problematic market. Consider this: India exports $300 million in hair every year, a couple hundred times as much as the U.S. Much of that supply is "temple hair," donated by millions of female Hindu pilgrims who shave their heads as a sign of devotion, but mixed in with this supply is children's hair, because booming industries often attract exploitation (for instance, tiny underpaid hands probably made the device you're currently using to read this article).
How else would they get the transistors so small?
That means an American seller like me has to prove that none of our hair is coming from people under 18, but there's no international regulation. If you've ever used a natural hair black wig or extension, that hair probably came from another country under questionable circumstances. But then, is that any worse than knowing that your brunette extensions came from someone who only sold their hair so they could pay their rent or eat?
People Try To Sell Us Their Pubes
Like everything in life that involves the exchange of money, the human-hair industry has its share of scammers. And even though our contracts stipulate that nobody gets paid a dime until we've received and examined the hair, people think they can hit-and-run us for money. For instance, one woman sent in a picture and a sample of really luscious, corn-silk hair. We agreed on a price, but when we got her box, all she'd sent us was a roll of hastily dyed animal hair (we think it was dog hair, but no one here could tell for certain). To be fair, the film industry does use animal hair for some of its crazier wigs, and judges' wigs in Britain and other Commonwealth countries are made with horsehair, but we only buy human (if I can stop just one person from needlessly shaving their pet or farm animals, this whole article will have been worth it).
Except for sheep shearers. You guys are still good to go.
We also buy only female hair. There's no real difference in quality, but some of our clients have told us they wouldn't feel right knowing their wig came from a dude, and men tend to be harder to work with, too. The kinds of men who grow their hair long enough to sell it also tend to think way too highly of it. The few guys who have tried to sell to us over the years have balked at the prices we offered. Sorry, guys, but no one's going to pay you a month's rent in exchange for your Sammy Hagar mane.
I mentioned earlier that it's OK if the hair isn't particularly, well, clean. But there is a limit -- many people inexplicably assume that in order to fetch the price for virgin hair, you need to stop washing it. I've never bought hair with any bugs in it (indeed, I am sure that few have), but that doesn't stop people from coming in and trying to sell grimy locks teeming with scalp infestations. Public health concerns aside, it's just bad business -- we need to produce wigs in a quick turnaround, and it would take too damn long to kill whatever is living in that hair to make it worth buying.
"We would normally incinerate your hair, but the resulting grease fire would torch half a city block."
Also, we can only use hair that comes from the head. So you can imagine how tiring it is to get emails from women trying to sell me their pubic hair. Except for the rare publicity sale, no one buys this. There are several reasons for that -- chiefly because you cannot make a wig from it -- but that doesn't deter some people. I field at least two emails a week from women trying to peddle their bush. One woman who I bought some hair from also included her pubic hair, tied up like her regular hair. There was a note inside the box that said, "Can you buy these for a fair price?" I sent them back with no note. I hope she got the message.
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interviewer, and interview finder guy for the PE team at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to tell us about? Then hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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