The UK's wig making industry is estimated to be worth up to £18 million according to the National Framework Agreement of Wig Supply. There are no official figures for the hair extension industry; however recent estimates put the value at £65 million. In 2009 nearly £15m worth of treated human hair - it has been washed and sometimes dyed - was imported into the UK, according to Customs and Excise.
Brazil, along with India, has long led the way in the lucrative global market in human hair. In the past few years, demand from UK businesses for human hair extensions has increased significantly, according to industry reports. The UK is now the third-largest buyer of human hair worldwide, behind the US and mainland China.
"As the demand outweighs supply, the price for the hair has increased. Which is one reason more people consider selling their hair as it is now considered a valuable commodity." says Emma Furlong, spokesperson for the UK's biggest supplier of wigs to the NHS, Trendco
Quality is an important factor. What is known as "virgin hair" - hair that has not has any treatments or colouring - is the most sought-after. A lot of Indian hair - known as remy hair - falls into that category, and has long been popular in the US, China, the UK and other parts of Europe. Ninety-five per cent of human hair is imported. In terms of Europe, a lot of it is sourced in Poland and Italy. Recently, however, there has been an increase in the appetite for "European hair". Trendco, says there is a shortage of the "softer" European kind. "European hair is finer in density and texture than Asian hair and so is very popular for human hair wigs and extensions, especially in EU countries where this integrates better with a client's own hair," says Emma Furlong. It is difficult to get natural, adult hair that is blonde. About 90% of the world's population has dark brown hair and the rarity of the hair colour will dictate the price. Blonde hair can cost up to three times as much as dark hair. The price for 100g of blonde, European hair is about £1,000. Graham Wake, owner of Bloomsbury Wigs in central London, says he has noticed a two-fold increase in the number of people from the UK selling their hair for money.
Human hair can be used to make an additive that is found in foods such as the dough for pizza crusts and bagels. It 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, mainly produced in China. As more people found out where L-cysteine came from they thought 'yuck, human hair, don't fancy that'. More Chinese people also started perming their hair, which made extracting the amino acid more difficult. 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.
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