Hair extensions are the show-stopping addition to your beauty get-up that can solve a multitude of mane issues instantly – provided you do your research.
Extensions are the best way to add volume, length and colour, and there are tons of different textures, hues and application methods to choose from. And yet with such a daunting array of options, it’s easy to get confused.
Virgin versus processed hair extensions
Choosing the type or quality of hair is key to extension success. With the days of synthetic hair (think the thin plastic fibres you find on Barbie) almost entirely behind us, the majority of hair extensions on the market are now, technically, real human hair. If you do happen to stumble across a synthetic version, steer clear – they look unnatural, and tend to matt and tangle easily.
Choosing quality hair is based on how the donor hair is collected. True ‘virgin remy’ hair extensions have never been treated with chemicals, leaving them unprocessed and uncoloured. They are considered the best quality but are also the most expensive. This is because the cuticle of the natural hair is preserved and the strands run in one direction, for a more natural appearance and a longer-lasting set of hair.
Other marketing jargon found on the packets of hair extensions include references to who the hair has been collected from, with common terms being ‘Caucasian’ and ‘Russian’. But beware: the hair extensions industry is an unregulated one in Australia and many products are mislabelled. So, it pays to do your research.
‘Caucasian’ means the hair has been grown by white women: this is not an issue of race, but simply because Caucasian people grow hair in all colours and styles, so there is a broader spectrum of product for the consumer to choose from. Asian hair, for example, would have to be bleached blonde and/or coloured for many consumers,’ explains Dee-Anne McGill, Owner and Director of LDL International® and advocate for better claims restrictions in the hair extension industry.
‘Russian’ is a broad term used to describe the origin of the hair – it simply means it comes from Russia. ‘Russian’ was once a term used to describe hair of the highest quality, but over time factories caught onto this demand and began sourcing hair from Asian or Indian people in Russia. This allowed them to advertise their hair as ‘Russian’ under the false pretence that it came from a Caucasian person.’
While the more expensive virgin, unprocessed hair can last up to five years if cared for properly, you’ll have to ditch the processed hair (usually) within eight reinstallations.
In other words, you get what you pay for.
‘When you’re not buying high-quality hair to begin with, you’ll spend more money replacing it every few weeks or months anyway,’ says McGill.
If your budget is tight, hair that has been processed, coloured and then coated in silicon is the cheaper option. But be aware that it tangles more easily, doesn’t last as long, can look unnaturally shiny and/or bland, and can even melt when heat-styled. On the upside, it’s more suited to anyone who wants a quick, temporary change without emptying their wallet.
Now you’ve picked your hair, how to attach them to your head?
Bonded Hair Extensions
Naturally thick hair.
What are they?
Also known as fusion extensions, these hair extensions don’t use a traditional heat application, which can damage the hair. Instead, the locks are fused by a stylist to natural hair with a heat-activated keratin-based glue and ultrasound technology. The process takes hours and can be quite expensive, but worth it. Thicker hair will benefit most, as the glue bonds may show through with thinner hair types. Look after them, and they should last up to three to four months.
Beaded Tracking Hair Extensions
Permanent hair extension wearers or people with thin, breakable hair.
What are they?
Beaded tracking involves taking thick pieces of your natural hair and threading it through a small hypoallergenic bead, before stitching either side of the bead to hold it in place. The result means the weft (or piece of hair) sits very flat on the scalp for a natural look, says McGill, who uses the method on her own clients.
‘Our beaded tracking method is superior because it doesn’t use any glues, tapes or bonds. We also take a thicker amount of natural hair in order to install each weft, allowing for the natural shedding of your hair each day. This means our method never pulls on your natural locks or causes any damage,’ says McGill.
Extensions need to be taken out and reinstalled every six weeks, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
Sew-in Hair Extensions
Thick, curly and coarse hair.
What are they?
Commonly known as a weave, these are best suited to hair that has enough strength to hold a cornrow braid. A hair stylist cornrows a section of your hair, then sews the hairpieces to the cornrows. A lengthy process, it takes several hours to install a whole head. The extensions last about two to three months.
‘These add instant volume and length which will require regular visits to tighten and adjust,’ says Aleks Abadia, Co-founder and Hair Director at Esstudio Galleria.
The braids act as an anchor for the wefts to latch on to. Buyers should be aware: this style can be thicker and heavier, so they can pull on the scalp. If you have a very textured mane, your locks are more likely to handle the pressure.
Clip-in Hair Extensions
What are they?
Whether processed or virgin, these detachable strands are perfect for instant length, volume and style without the maintenance.
‘They’re easy to remove and attach for a quick style makeover. Visit your stylist for a blow dry and style for a weekend of festivities. To maintain, drop off to your stylist for a wash and blow dry and style for the next night out or weekend of events,’ suggests Abadia.
Tape Hair Extensions
Fine hair and lighter coloured natural hair.
What are they?
‘Great for volume and length, these are attached by keratin double-sided strip tape, which must be attached professionally. They require upkeep every six to eight weeks,’ says Abadia.
Tape strips are added close to the roots and grow out with your natural growth, so they’re the least aggressive extensions, according to Abadia.
‘They are attached to about an inch section of hair, meaning they distribute tension to the hair across the section, which is better for fine hair,’ he says.
That said, some people may find that the chemicals contained in glues and tape cause their own hair to be damaged, given time.
‘Glue or tape options can cause damage because the amount of natural hair that is taken to install each extension is very fine. This doesn’t allow for the natural shedding of hair, which for the average woman can be anywhere between 50 to 100 strands per day,’ explains McGill.
‘So, when someone is wearing these extensions, they will find that the strand of natural hair attached to their weft slowly becomes thinner and thinner, pulling on it and damaging it.’
Home maintenance for tapes includes washing, blow drying, regular brushing and plaiting before bed to avoid tangling. They’re particularly suitable for fine or blonde hair types because you can barely see the transparent tape.
Are hair extensions for you?
According to McGill, anyone and everyone can wear hair extensions. It’s a matter of choosing the right type for you.
‘Clip-in options, for example, are best for people who don’t want to commit to wearing permanent extensions all day, every day, as they allow you to put them in and take them out with ease,’ says McGill.
‘On the other end of the spectrum, LDL hair extensions clientele is primarily made up of permanent extension wearers. These are people who want to wear their extensions for years and years without worrying that they will lose their quality.’
Achieving good-quality extensions requires education, proper care and maintenance, and a flexible budget. Ask the right questions to find the best product for you.
How to maintain your hair extensions
Many people believe that it takes an army to maintain hair extensions, but McGill says it doesn’t need to be that way.
‘The truth is that when you buy high-quality hair, you don’t really need to treat it any differently to your natural locks,’ she says.
‘A good shampoo and conditioner is all you really need to make sure they stay in perfect condition.’
For most hair extension types, care tips include a daily brushing routine, hydration with a leave-in conditioner or masque, and the use of natural products rather than those doused in chemicals that dry out your locks. Try to avoid putting the hair in either salt or chlorinated water and treat your extensions with care – no pulling or tugging.
For virgin hair, gently brush and detangle each night to avoid damage and wash with only sulfate-free and paraben-free shampoo, specifically on the roots.
Hair extensions top tips
- Ensure the colour and texture matches the actual locks on your head. Think colour and texture. Hair extensions should be undetectable.
- Visit the salon for upkeep at least every six weeks. Your stylist can perform a basic touch-up, and let you know when it is time for a reinstall or new set.
- Make sure your hair is ethically sourced instead of coming from the black market, which could be of lesser quality than advertised.
- There’s a risk of damage with every kind of semi-permanent extension method. Remember, you’re gluing, taping and sewing hair in place! To prevent any hair loss, breakage and scalp issues, tread carefully and be strict with your maintenance routine.
- Hair extensions are not for everyone – consider your lifestyle and hair quality before committing to them. If you love Bikram yoga and updos, they may not be for you. If you have super-thin, weak locks, you are going to have to invest in the better quality hair and installation methods.