In the US, women and girls sometimes donate their hair to groups that make wigs—think Locks of Love—not because hair is hard to come by but because it is so expensive. But many also buy wigs and extensions made of real human hair—and chances are good that hair comes from countries like India and China, where women sell their long locks out of necessity. It's a dirty business, reports Alex Mayyasi for Priceonomics, both literally and figuratively. In India, for instance, sites like the Venkateswara Temple do quite a business selling hair (though they say they donate the proceeds to charities) because it is customary for pilgrims who visit the temple to have their heads shaved. Most are unaware their hair is sold. The workers who then sort through the discarded locks must contend with blood from the quickly-shaved scalps, lice, and more, and the factories reek.
As Scott Carney wrote in his 2010 report for Mother Jones, "Put 21 tons of the stuff in a room blooming with mildew and fungus and the stench is overpowering." Most say hair from India is the best; Mayyasi writes that Indian pilgrims typically haven't performed damaging treatments on their hair, "but its most valuable attribute is that it closely resembles caucasian hair." There's a dark side to the trade, and not just the flow of hair from poor women giving up their long locks for wealthy buyers. There are stories of men beating and holding down women to shave their heads for money. Wigs made of real hair can easily cost thousands of dollars, though synthetic hair—which just doesn't look as natural and can't be styled—continues to improve and is far less expensive, so it may only be a matter of time before the market for the real thing dwindles considerably. (Lady Gaga says she wears wigs to cover up her pain.)