There are basically two types of hair fiber: synthetic and human hair. Most people believe that a wig must be human hair to look authentic, but this is not the case. In fact, a high-quality synthetic wig will look far more convincing than a cheap human hair one, so don’t let your concern for realism be your only consideration when deciding on either human or synthetic hair. With technological advancements in synthetic hair fiber, you do not have to wear a human hair wig to have a wig that looks real, so deciding on a type of hair fiber now involves considerations regarding maintenance and care commitments, lifestyle, cost, and durability more than realism.
Synthetic fibers are fine plastics, usually in the form of polyester, acrylic, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These fibers are processed to look and move like real hair, but not all synthetic fibers are the same as far as quality. The best way to tell if you are looking at wigs of higher synthetic quality is shine. Cheaper synthetic wigs will be overly shiny in appearance, while fine synthetics will not be shiny and will look and move more naturally. A quality synthetic will also feel softer and silkier than a cheaper one.
Benefits of Synthetic Wigs
No styling required. Since synthetics are fine strands of fabric, the style is literally ‘baked’ into the wig. Wetting the wig will not alter the style and it will dry into the same shape it was in when purchased.
Cheaper. In general, high-quality synthetics are cheaper than high-quality human hair wigs.
Consistency. A synthetic wig will not react to environmental factors such as humidity or dryness, but will react to heat from cooking, styling tools, etc.
Drawbacks of Synthetic Wigs
No heat styling. While a synthetic wig can be pulled into an updo just like human hair, these fibers cannot be heat styled without causing damage to the fiber. Likewise, heat from cooking such as stoves and ovens should be avoided when wearing a synthetic wig.
Durability. Synthetics will not last as long as human hair wigs. How long a synthetic wig lasts depends on how it is cared for and how often it is worn, as well as the quality of the fiber. A cheaper synthetic wig will frizz and dry out quicker than a more expensive one. Long synthetic wigs, in particular, will also tangle quite easily as compared to a human hair one.
Shine. Seen in lower quality synthetics, fiber shine can be excessive and unnatural looking. Baby powder, corn starch, and dry shampoo are commonly used to reduce the fiber shine of cheaper synthetics; higher-quality synthetics should not need such products. Keep in mind that even high quality synthetics will reflect shine in flash photography – this does not necessarily mean the hair is unnaturally shiny in actual appearance.
Just as is the case with synthetic hair, not all human hair is created equal. A wig made of low quality human hair will look worse than a high-quality synthetic wig. Before discussing the basics types of human hair from which to choose, there are a few key terms with which you will want to be familiar.
Virgin/unprocessed hair: Unprocessed human hair that has not been chemically treated in any way; this keeps the cuticle of the hair intact (chemical processing removed the cuticle) making the hair smoother in appearance.
Remi/Remy hair: Hair that has the cuticle facing the same direction for every strand, which maintains the smooth, silky appearance of the hair for the greatest amount of time.
Geography: Human hair is basically described as Chinese/Asian, Indian, Indonesian or European/Caucasian, with Chinese and Indian hair used most frequently. European hair is the strongest of these, and is also the least plentiful – it is therefore most expensive. Within the European category, Russian hair is the most expensive option (Therefore, the highest quality wig one could buy would most likely be virgin Remy Russian hair).
Kosher: Wigs that do not use hair originating from rituals deemed to be idolatrous (this primarily refers to Indian hair, which is often obtained during religious Hindu ceremonies).
Benefits to Human Hair
Durability. In general, quality human hair is going to last longer than even a quality synthetic.
Versatility. While a synthetic wig can be put into updos or braids, etc. they cannot withstand heat styling, while a human hair wig can. As such there is more versatility with a human hair wig.
Realism. While synthetics have made huge advances in realism, nothing can ever look like human hair more than actual human hair.
Drawbacks of Human Hair Wigs
Cost. Quality human hair is going to cost more than a synthetic fiber of the same caliber, and as with most things, the sky is the limit on the ultimate cost – a virgin Russian Remy human hair wig could sell for as much or more than $8,000.
Weight. Human hair is heavier than synthetic hair, but still wearable and comfortable.
Unpredictability. Like your own hair, a human hair wig will react to humidity and dryness, and will require styling after being washed or getting wet.
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These are the basics of synthetic and human hair wigs, but as with everything else each type can get far more detailed than I’ve gotten here. Before we close, however, there are two other fiber types I’d like to mention:
A special blend of synthetic fiber that allows heat styling, although generally not at temperatures as high as human hair can tolerate. Keep in mind that, since any wig fiber is not generating natural oils and is not porous like hair attached to the head, the less heat used on them the better. Heat stylable synthetics are a rather new introduction to wig fibers, and have a less reliable reputation than a regular synthetic or human hair wig.
Synthetic/Human Hair Blends:
Wigs that blend human hair and synthetic fiber, usually in percentages of either 25%, 35%, or 50% human-to-synthetic ratios. The synthetic fiber helps to maintain shape after washing while the human hair adds realism and durability. Some wigs will use heat-stylable synthetics while others do not – a human hair/heat-stylable blend could be styled with heat, whereas a blend with a regular synthetic could not.