For well-to-do American women, hair extensions are a luxury; in Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states, they're a way for poor women to make money—sometimes, relatively speaking, a lot of money. “Russian hair is the best in the world," a hair processor tells the New York Times. That's partially because much of it is naturally blond, the most sought-after color to be made into hair extensions because it can be easily dyed. Extensions cost, on average, $439, but the price can go up to several thousand dollars. In Russian towns like Yukhnov, where the average monthly wage is $300, a 16-inch braid will fetch its owner $50.
It's getting harder to find blonds willing to part with their hair, and poverty-stricken areas of the world are hair buyers' best bets. "They are not doing it for fun," says one importer. "Usually, only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” Once taken, the hair is washed, dyed, combed, and sometimes boiled to sterilize it—and the finished product, given names like "Russian Gold," is so sought-after that one warehouse is guarded by security. As for the American customers? They usually don't ask where their extensions came from, says one trade group founder: “They are concerned about their looks more than anything else."