Padma is 28 years old and lives in a small, dusty village in the outskirts of Chennai. Though she makes a modest income from her regular job of selling vegetables in the city, every few months she adds to her earnings with an unusual but fast-growing business – selling hair. The story, to most of us, is reminiscent of the famous story of the girl who chops her lovely locks and sells them to buy a gift for her beloved. But the truth is that the hair business is a thriving one, a US $1.3 million worth to be exact.
Yes. That is the amount India made by exporting human hair to the US in 2011, besides £15m worth to UK. Hair exports from India are 66 per cent of the global tally. And from here, it only gets more fascinating.
No one can outdo India when it comes to hairy matters. Indian hair, after China’s, has increasingly come in demand internationally in recent years. Why, you ask? Simply put, it is the best. Long, jet black, luxuriant, well taken care of, and easily and cheaply available – all these go into making it a highly sought-after product. And it is not just the hair – false eyelashes, beards, eyebrows – the whole package sells, and how.
Getting to the root of it all
So who is buying all the hair? And where are they getting it from? We asked A L Kishore Kumar, the owner of a hair exporting company that has been in the business for four generations in Tamil Nadu.
GT: Where does the hair come from? Do you have people that you regularly approach?
Kumar: “There are three sources we have – barber shops or beauty salons, temples and villages. We buy hair from them on a regular basis and pay accordingly.”
Temples in south India collect copious amounts of hair every year from devotees who get their heads tonsured usually after a past wish has been fulfilled. This hair is then auctioned by temple authorities, sometimes being sold for millions of dollars.
The Tirumala Venkateshwara temple in Andhra, for instance, earned nearly Rs 200 crore in 2011 by selling 560 tonnes of hair. And more than 40 traders like Kishore Kumar attend these auctions.
GT: Is there a criterion when you buy hair from villagers? How much do you pay them?
Kumar: “The hair has to be long and healthy. The money paid depends on its quality, weight and thickness too. We pay anything between Rs 500 or Rs 5000 for it.” And believe it or not, pure white tresses fetch more than black ones because they are much more in demand abroad. According to a recent BBC report, natural blonde hair is the rarest and most expensive.
GT: What do you do with the collected hair?
Kumar: “We process it, which means it has to be washed thoroughly. Sometimes we use detergents, otherwise regular shampoo and then it has to be conditioned. Sometimes it needs to be treated with chemicals too, for instance bleach, if the customer requires it. Other times, we use lemons to remove the dust in the hair. We also clean the hair for lice and other dirt. After that, it is hackled, a process in which the hair is detangled using a sharp and big metal comb.”
GT: Who are your customers? “There are distributors, brokers, foreign beauty salons and individual customers. The distributors buy in bulk, the agents in hundreds of kilos; beauty salons usually buy 50-100 kilograms and individuals buy a little over 100 gms or so. Once the hair is completely processed, we pack it off and courier it through FedEx or DHL.”
Mallika Sreekumar, founder and CEO of Kochi-based Waves Hair, used to be a homemaker but now sells hair to customers in Europe, Africa and the US and earns revenues of upto Rs 1 crore per year. Dinesh Kumar, the owner of Sri Sabri Human Hair that started three years ago, earns revenues of Rs 25 lakh per annum by selling hair to the US, UK and China. Human hair has a separate category under customs and the duty on it is levied by some countries, not all. Though Kumar did not share figures for the company’s annual revenue, if the above numbers are anything to go by, there is handsome revenue to be earned. Wigs used in films can cost as much as US$6,000.
But if you thought wigs and beards were the only bright future human hair has, you would be wrong. This next application of hair will leave yours standing on end.
Hair for food...
food for thought?
Yes, you read right. It may not appeal to many to find strands of hair on their plates. But here is a somewhat unsavoury fact to digest: hair is deliberately used as an ingredient in some food products! Hair contains L-cysteine, an amino acid that can be extracted and used as a flavour enhancer or flour improver and is labelled as E920 on the list of ingredients. It is traced primarily to manufacturers in China but the trend may be on a slow decline, if not altogether ousted, with consumers growing wary of hygiene issues. Also, as women began perming or curling their hair, it became increasingly difficult to extract the amino acid.
Not Edible? Wear that Hair
Fashion can be bizarre but when bizarre is carried a step further, you get a dress made of hair. Although the trend was kickstarted quite some time back, it is yet to catch up with regular customers. Fashion experts believe that in ten years, the hair-dress will be an item of luxury.
Mop off Hair
And last, though definitely not the least, hair is also used to mop up oil spills. The surface area of a hair follicle and its ‘sticky’ quality adheres to oil and absorbs it. The Hair for Oil Spills programme in the US is one such organisation that collects hair from salons, pet owners and even sheep farmers.
So, there you have it – the most seemingly inconsequential part of the human body actually drives a trade worth millions around the world. Hair today, but definitely not gone tomorrow!