Truth behind hair extensions: what's really on your head? - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Truth behind hair extensions: what's really on your head?

Hair being tested under the microscope (Source: WMC Action News 5) Hair being tested under the microscope (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Several samples of hair submitted for testing. (Source: WMC Action News 5) Several samples of hair submitted for testing. (Source: WMC Action News 5)

Through the lens of a microscope, scientists began getting to the root of a problem many beauty experts say they've dealt with for a long time.  Mid-South stylists stated there are too few regulations in place to hold mega money-making hair extension companies accountable in the beauty industry. So the weight of the backlash fell into their laps.

Many stylists said more regulations are needed to hold hair extension companies accountable for the products they place on the market. Stylists suspect what women are buying to put on their heads may not be human at all. 

"This is something that people are invested in. This is something that people are using to feel good about themselves," Empire Hair Studio stylist Jeni Sanders said. "They don't want to spend $800 and then get yak hair, get raccoon hair--something that's going to turn green."

Beauty experts discovered hair extension brands are mixing synthetic and animal hair into products they are selling as 100 percent human hair. Beauty experts said their customers are ultimately paying the price.

"Suzy's not going to blame the hair extensions company. She's going to blame me, you know! " Sanders said.

Beauty experts believed some brands are conning their clients, taking their cash and mis-marketing products.

Hair extensions are marketed as virgin, unprocessed, or top quality hair, but WMC Action News 5's Felicia Bolton put those labels and the brands that market them to the test.

Click here to see pictures from the experiment.

"They can lie to you about anything that they want," Sanders said.

Tamika Broadnax, owner of Platinum Kutz Beauty & Barber Salon, has studied and styled women's hair for more than 20 years. Now this booming new trend has her and other stylists going to extra lengths to protect clients.

"Make sure that the hair is 100 percent, because if it's not 100 percent human--If it's mixed with anything--it will burn. It will melt. It will mat up," Broadnax said.

The Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South registered 90 complaints against hair piece companies since April 2015. According to, in 2016 the global hair care market is estimated to be worth about $83.1 billion.

So the WMC Action News 5 Investigators teamed up with scientists to test some of the most popular brands. Our investigator Felicia Bolton even cut six inches of her own hair to ensure the study had an authentic control group of human hair.

To find out if some of the most popular "human hair" extensions were really human at all, we tested store-bought bundles against our investigator Felicia Bolton's natural hair in a local lab. Immediately, Electron Microscopist Lou Boykins discovered what she believed looked like a dead giveaway.

"If it's no scales, chances are it's not hair," explained Boykins.

Through her microscope, she analyzed the outer surface of the hairs. Strands of Outre and Zury brands showed cuticle scales. Boykins said that means the samples are likely human hair. But Boykins said strands of Bellami, Bobbi Boss, Milky Way, and Black Diamond did not have scales. The Revlon brand's results were "inconclusive." Boykins suspected harsh processing could have played a role in the outcome of the testing. 

"Sometimes the manufacturers or the companies may strip the cuticle or the hair to make it shinier and glossier," said Boykins.

So Histologist Lauren Thompson took it a step further by comparing the cellular makeup of each brand against synthetic hair, horse hair, and Felicia Bolton's hair.

"Synthetic hairs, when you look at them under the microscope, they have an artifact called fish eyes, " explained Thompson. "Human and animal hair has specific qualities: the melanin pigments, the medulla, scales that determine that it's a human or an animal hair."

The experiment uncovered an unfortunate truth: High prices for beautiful extensions don't always mean high value.

Thompson's tests suggested Bellami strands were 100% human hair. Their clip-ins cost $119.99. Tests on Zury, Milky Way, and Black Diamond all showed a "medulla," which meant they too are likely human hair.

They're priced between $20 and $35.

But tests on strands of Bobbi Boss, priced at approximately $45, came back a mixture of synthetic and human. Tests on strands of Revlon's extensions, sold to us for $10, also came back a mixture of synthetic and human.

Tests on pieces of the Outre brand's hair extensions showed something quite different.

"There were definitely two types of hair present," stated Histologist Lauren Thompson.

Thompson said she discovered what appeared to be two types of hair from a living being. Actually, scientists stated in their preliminary tests they detected a mix of human, animal, and synthetic cellular components in the Outre bundle.

This scientific study suggested stylists' claims were true. Beauty experts stated that just because it marked as 100 percent human hair, doesn't mean it always is.

To see their test results, click here.

"It needs to be an industry that you can trust, not one that you don't believe in,” said Stylist Jeni Sanders.

A spokesperson from the Outre brand released this comment in regards to the tests:

"After looking at the microscope photos of our hair samples, I was confused as to why the conclusion came as a 'blend of synthetic and animal and/or human.' I understand that the parameters of your test were based on the medulla/medullary index and cuticle scales. The light microscope photo appears to show the cuticle scales on the sides of the hair strand," stated Research and Development Manager for Outre, Louis Choi. "Also, although there is no clear presence of a medulla, I have found that finer hair tends to have a higher rate of absent medulla. For this reason, I personally stopped using this is an indicator when conducting our tests. Also, I felt that the two strands in the photo from the electron microscope showed scales on both strands."

"We are also continuing to conduct tests internally and learning from your scientists may help us as well!" said Choi. "Lastly, we as a company are very stringent on our hair quality standards. We would never intentionally try to mix synthetic fibers into a product that is very clearly labeled as 100% human hair. We sell all types of products from 100% human hair, to blend products and 100% synthetic products but we are always transparent with how we label and market our products as to avoid any possible confusion from our customers."

Bobbi Boss took it a step further. They said they've conducted their own tests on the same product:

"Thank you for giving us some time to look over your study's findings as well as to conduct our own tests. We contacted our OEM suppliers in regards to the matter at hand," responded Senior Manager and Marketing Executive Alyse Kwon. "Their research department conducted a test on a batch of our BonEla Natural Wave 10" product (the same product that you sampled), and its results indicated that our products are not blended with synthetic hair.  Additionally, our in-house R&D department conducted a thorough examination, which included microscopy, bleaching, dyeing, and burning, on the same product. And our test results were consistent with our OEM supplier's conclusion and with our normal quality control results,” stated Kwon.

To see Bobbi Boss test results, click here.

Revlon's extensions were created by Aderans Hair Goods. That company released this statement: 

"Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and giving us the opportunity to review the test results you provided.  We take complaints of this nature very seriously.  We are unable to independently verify the results because this product was originally created and manufactured by one of our distributors in 2008 and is no longer in production," stated Director and Sales Operations, Steve Collins. “Our distributor represented and warranted to us that the product was 100% human hair.  We have ceased working with this distributor since 2013 and to our knowledge they are no longer selling products under the Revlon brand.  Unfortunately, there may be leftover inventory in the marketplace, but if so, it should be minimal.  If you are aware of any consumer complaints regarding this product, we ask that you please have the consumer contact us by email at, and we will promptly address their grievances. Customer satisfaction is our number one priority.”

The scientists in this story strongly emphasize their tests provided only preliminary results and not firm conclusions on the overall cellular makeup of any of the hairs tested. "The light and electron microscopic analysis conducted on the strands from extension was preliminary. It's results need to be confirmed by the analysis of more strands. The interpretation of the results was not conducted by forensic hair experts."

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