Human Hair 101 (aka: How to avoid shenanigans!)

This post was originally published on September 09, 2015 by Heather Hershey

I was on FaceBook the other day chatting with some wig friends (Trish, Linda – this is a shout-out to you!), when I encountered a really interesting and, frankly, sad conversation thread about all the counterfeit human hair shenanigans going on online, on eBay more specifically.

I hear horror stories about this ALL THE TIME.

You find an ahhhhmazing deal on a virgin, Remy, Blonde European hair wig on eBay for only $400…and when it arrives it’s a big bushy mess of frizzy Indian hair that was bleached into oblivion and looks like an unraveled basket on your head.

That’s right. You have become a “basket case”. 

Some people think this is due to the dye. This is only partially true. I actually blame the hair itself, as well as folks having unrealistic expectations of what we can do with it.

People demand impossible things and manufacturers do their best to oblige, often with mixed results. This is also true of biohair  – and hairstylists friends will confirm that the struggle is real! I mean, think of the people who want Beyoncé hair on a Best Cuts budget, for example. Great Clips can only do so much and some things just don’t come cheap. 
So let me break this down for you a bit.

The dye used on most human hair wigs is not the same that you would use on your own hair, but is instead the EXACT same pigmentation used on the synthetic wigs made by whichever company you buy it from. The synthetics are a textile, so in that case it makes sense. In human hair, though, it’s a bit more complicated.

Though it may not result in additional damage to the hair (because honestly, the nitty gritty chemical processing is virtually the same between human hair dye from Sally’s and those textile dyes except vat processed on a much larger scale), it certainly results in watered down colors that aren’t as vibrant as hair dye that is made for human hair. I am under the impression that the principle reasons they use textile dyes are twofold: 1) Convenience because those materials are already on hand and 2) they hold better than human hair colors, which is a good thing for folks who don’t want to have to recolor their wigs. The rub there, though, is that human hair dyed with textile dye still fades, just not as quickly.

A bigger problem in my mind is actually that no one in “the biz” clearly articulates what the processing limitations of the hair are. The biggest problems come in when folks expect light brown or even blonde Asian, Brazilian, or Indian sourced human hair to be tangle and damage free. This is an unrealistic expectation.

I feel like it’s my job to set people straight (because it is). So, let’s just get deep with it: that kind of hair is usually a 1B naturally, which is very, very dark. It is also generally quite resistant to color processing.

Let that sink in for a minute.

That’s right. It’s a paradox. The most common hair types used for human hair wigs – and the kinds most likely to need color processing – are RESISTANT to color processing. 

These kinds of natural hairs don’t take well to intense lightening and almost always frizz out as part of the process. It doesn’t matter what kind of dye it is – the damage results from the “lifting” process that removes the melanin from the hair shaft. You can sometimes circumvent that by processing with low volume developer over a long period of time, but if you’ve ever tried that yourself you probably know that the hair still comes out kind of fuzzy and brittle, at least compared to what it was when virgin.

A lot of manufacturers get around this by dousing the hair with silicone, which slicks the scales on the hair shaft back into place…until the next wash. So, as soon as you get it home and wash it, they seem like they just kind of frizz out and fall apart.

So why do manufacturers use these kinds of hairs on virtually all human hair wigs?

That’s an easy question to answer…even though the answers may be genuinely difficult to hear.

The main reason is because of its availability. There is quite a bit of color and texture homogeneity among folks of those ethnic types (Brazilian, Indian, and Asian). The hair is almost always straight and almost always a 1B. (The only exception is that Brazilian hair is almost always wavy or even curly, but is still usually a 1B.) This makes it possible to take hair from multiple individuals to create a single wig. (Side note: this also means that wigs made from these kinds of hairs are almost always thicker than wigs made of European hair, which can only come from one person’s head per wig.)

A secondary reason is that it is relatively predicable and easy to process, at least in terms of the entire wig making process, not necessarily color processing.
The tertiary and infinitely more depressing reason why most human hair wigs are made from these kinds of hairs is the general scarcity of naturally lighter (IE: European) hair. Part of the scarcity of European hair is due to the diversity among individuals in the gene pool. The hair tends to vary greatly from one person to the next and this makes mass production and harvesting quite difficult because you can’t mix the hair from two or more individuals together to make a wig. This makes European hair wigs more delicate, more precious, a little thinner than Asian hair wigs, and definitely more expensive even before taking into considering the cost of the cap construction.

The depressing part of the scarcity issue is one of the darkest not-so-secret secrets of the wig biz: exploitation. Women in Western developed countries do not feel the same economic pressure to sell their hair for money that women in other, less wealthy cultures do. Almost all of the European hair in the world for wigs comes from just a handful of Eastern European countries and regions in Russia where the poverty is absolute and not relative…and even in those places, women adhere to Western standards of beauty and are highly reluctant to sell their hair.

In summary, regarding human hair:

– I recommend Brazilian, Indian, or Asian sourced hair for folks who like dark colors or dark colors with limited highlights. These kinds of hairs really seem to hold up nicely to minor color processing that does not require intense lightening. (Brazilian holds red nicely, as a side note.)

– For anyone who wants lighter colors, I recommend European hair (from a reputable, vetted source since the stuff’s so expensive and there are so many counterfeits on the web). European hair is basically the only kind of human hair fiber you can get that does not need to be color treated in order to achieve blondes and light browns…but those colors are more rare and are often more expensive because of it. (Edit: I wanted to add that if this hair doesn’t set you back a few grand, minimum, it is most likely counterfeit. Virgin European hair is quite scarce and precious, for reasons which I have explained above. The entire process of harvesting and supplying hair for these wigs is more expensive as a result, so the retail cost is also substantially higher.)

– If you can’t afford a Remy, virgin, European hair wig from a reputable source, then make peace with darker hair colors OR stick to synthetics. Your life will become much less frustrating that way. 😉

– Or, conversely, make peace with the fact that severely color processed (IE: lightened) Asian, Indian, and Brazilian human hair will be frizzier, but can be treated with moisturizers and silicones in order to achieve a manageable, albeit less than perfect, texture. I HIGHLY recommend purchasing complementary care products  with your wig, such as argan oil serums, conditioners, more conditioners, shine sprays, and perhaps even a silicone sealer. This hair will be damaged as a result of color treatment (IE: lightening to anything lighter than a dark brown) and will need lots of care to keep it looking as good as it does out of the box. Also, while you should NEVER put shampoo or astringent chemical cleansers directly on your wigs, this is EXTRA super duper true of these wigs! All it takes is one shampoo wash directly applied to the hair and – BOOM – it can turn into a frizzy, unsalvageable, hopelessly tangled mess.

– If something seems too good to be true online (especially on Alibaba or eBay), it probably is. For example, if you buy a “virgin” Brazilian, Asian, or Indian hair wig in ANY color other than a 1B…that is most likely NOT a virgin wig. These will almost always be a 1B, a 1, or a 2. They will always be very, very dark.

– Have realistic expectations of the material your wig is made of. Each kind of fiber (synth, human hair, HF/HD Synth, etc.) has its own best uses and limitations of what kind of styling and coloration it can handle…and this REALLY trips people up a lot!

  • Synthetic hair (modacrylic, Kanekalon fiber) cannot be color processed because it is a textile. The dye is literally injected into the hair as it is created. This hair can be styled with steam or other forms of wet heat. It is generally considered shake-and-go as it is pre-styled at the factory to be ready to wear, more or less, right out of the box. This is the easiest kind of hair to wear, in my opinion, and is generally what I recommend for new wig buyers. Synthetic wigs are relatively inexpensive (at least compared to human hair) and come in a wide variety of styles, colors, textures, and cap constructions.
  • Heat-friendly synthetic (Futura fiber, HD fiber, True2Life fiber, etc.) has similar color processing to the above. I consider this stuff best suited for styles cut ABOVE the collar line…and paradoxically, you’re most likely to find it used for really long wigs. This is a big pet peeve of mine and fairly blatant example of how the wig industry kind of takes advantage of naïve new clients who are by and large more likely to seek out this material. This hair is very elastic, which accommodates the styling, but also causes issues with friction, static build-up, and tangling. Heat-friendly fiber is more prone to being pulled and distorted due to this elasticity, and its propensity to tangle means these wigs have a shorter general wearable life than their traditional synthetic counterparts. So, another paradox: heat-friendly wigs are generally bought by people new to wigs who think they are a less expensive alternative to human hair. They want the versatility of being able to style their hair…but the more they style the hair, the faster it clumps and tangles! These kinds of wigs are actually best for folks who want an occasional change of pace – and not for daily wear and/or styling – unless the cut is above the collar. 
  • Exception: I really like heat-friendly synthetic/human hair blends. Adding human hair to a heat-friendly synthetic blend cuts down on the elasticity and static build-up issues, resulting in an overall more durable wig. I consider these worth the additional cost if you are considering a heat-friendly synthetic wig. It’s amazing what adding some human hair to the mix can do!
  • Human hair wigs are generally a blank canvas in terms of style. They will most likely need to be washed (make sure you heed my notes above) and perhaps even cut before they can truly be wearable. This is because, unlike a synthetic wig, most of these do not come pre-styled, and they generally don’t hold the style even if they are. (The only exception being the handful of pre-permed or naturally curly wigs on this site.) This hair comes in a lot of variations of color, texture, length, and quality. I hope I have cleared some of that up during the course of this blog post.
  • Regardless of the material, cut back on washing and styling (including combing) as much as you can. Be sure to moisturize the dickens out of your human hair with high quality (as in, not from Walmart or Rite Aid) care products. These are the absolute most important things you can do to prolong the life of your wigs!

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that most stores aren’t going to emphasize the limitations because they make money off the glamor and fantasy. They just tell people what they want to hear so they buy, buy, BUY. Telling people the truth is a buzz kill. (I think you might be shocked by how many random emails I get from people who are angry that I list potential wearable life expiration dates on my product listings! It’s a real downer to some people, I guess.)

I hope this post has been informative and helps folks avoid wasting money on counterfeits and other bad hair on the interwebs…because to me, throwing money down the drain on a lie is way more of a buzz kill than spending a little more – more appropriately – on the real deal. 🙂

– Heather @ Cysterwigs

(Sorry for the essay. I’m known to be super long winded about hair! LOL)

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