Deep Dive on Kanekalon Braiding Hair

Deep Dive on Kanekalon Braiding Hair

Halloween is coming up and winter weather is starting to settle in. You might be thinking about changing up your look for October 31st or even for a long-term protective style for the winter. More specifically, you might be thinking about braids or twists with some added length, maybe with something like Kanekalon hair. Today, I want to dive into Kanekalon braiding hair to understand the hair’s lifecycle and environmental impact.

Environmental Impact of Kanekalon Hair pinterest graphic

Introduction

Kanekalon refers to both a company and a style of synthetic hair. It’s similar to how the name Jacuzzi started from a brand but now is used as a catch-all term, but in this case it’s not incorrect to call the synthetic hair from other companies Kanekalon.

Angela is at a rally holding a sign looking at the camera to her right. Her hair is in dark brown box braids and she smiles at the camera.The first time I heard about Kanekalon was when I got box braids about 3 years ago, the only time I’ve ever had braids done professionally. Since then, I’ve bought my own Kanekalon hair to braid in myself, because (as you’ll know if you read this blog regularly) I really like doing my hair myself rather than paying someone else to do it.

As I’ve mentioned, Kanekalon hair is synthetic, which leads to my first question… 

Where does it come from?

Broadly, Kanekalon hair came from Japan in the 1950s. It was first developed as a synthetic wool source, but soon after came to be used for hair because the fibers are lightweight, non-flammable, and able to set in hot water. It has since become widely used as synthetic hair, both in wigs and other forms, including braiding hair.

Photo of seven plaits of colored Kanekalon hair. Some are ombre with pinks, purples, or greens.
Photo from dhgate.com

As you might’ve already guessed, synthetic means plastic in this context. Kanekalon hair, more specifically, is made from modacrylic fibers. Modacrylic fibers are made from acrylonitrile, which is made from propylene, which is “obtained from petroleum oils during the refining of gasoline” (PubChem). In other words, this synthetic hair comes from fossil fuels. It would almost be an impressive feat transforming oil into hair, except that fossil fuels are a major source of pollution of our air, waters, land, and wildlife. So, ya’know, not a great product/industry to be supporting.

Now let’s say you’ve already bought the Kanekalon hair, you braided your hair, and now you’re ready to take them down. When you’re done with the hair… 

Where does it go?

When it came time for me to remove my first ever set of Kanekalon braids, I was instructed to cut the braid below my natural hair, unwind the top, and throw it all in the trash. Well, unsurprisingly, it did not take long for me to feel absolutely horrible about all the waste I was producing! So, I wondered if there was anything else that could be done.

You can probably guess that this synthetic hair is not recyclable in your municipal bin. All the strands would be a big mess, right? A while back, TerraCycle (an awesome company that provides recycling solutions for a bunch of different materials that you probably thought couldn’t be recycled) had a program to recycle synthetic Kanekalon hair, and I was excited to encourage you all to lobby your local hair salon to get a TerraCycle bin. However, as of the time of this writing, they seem to have retired the program. So it seems that the only resting place for Kanekalon hair right now is the garbage 🙁

Are there any alternatives?

Three bundles of human hair extensions in dark brown from Addcolo.com
Photo from Addcolo.com

The most common, natural (non-synthetic) alternative to Kanekalon hair is human hair. This is more expensive, but you reuse this hair. Depending on how often you expect to use the extensions, they might be a worthwhile investment. (I’ll admit, human hair gives me the heebie-jeebies, personally, so I probably won’t be doing this.)

For me, the fun of synthetic hair is having different colors to try out. I’ve had silver, blue, and a subtle brown/red ombre, which would be harder with human hair. Instead of tossing the hair after the first use like you’re told to, I’ve starting reusing my synthetic hair. There seem to be a lot more video tutorials on cleaning hair for reuse now that people are quarantining and have less access to beauty shops. I’m a fan of this video by Kel Wihler for the process of washing and prepping hair for reuse. Mirror selfie of Angela wearing a yellow dress with two large braids over my left shoulder. The braids are dark at the roots and blue at the ends.Photo of the back of Angela's head. She has silver and black box braids in a half up, half down style.

Unfortunately, when you do this, you’re likely to lose a few strands of the hair since they’re so thin. The solution here is just to be diligent about securing the hair and making sure any strands that do get loose are either recovered or thrown in the trash. We definitely don’t want microplastics making their way into the environment. I know reusing synthetic hair is not a perfect solution, but at least the hair gets a few more uses before ending up in the landfill.

Another potential alternative would be buying Kanekalon hair from someone who, for example, bought too much and won’t use the extra. You can find lots of Kanekalon hair on Mercari, but it’s hard to know online if someone is reselling the hair because they aren’t using it or if reselling hair is more of a business for them. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but environmentally it’s the same as buying new Kanekalon hair from a store.

Conclusion

I love that braiding hair gives me the ability to switch up my look while protecting my natural hair. However, now that I’m further along my environmentally conscious journey, I don’t think I’ll be buying more virgin/new Kanekalon hair anytime soon. While the plastic/fossil fuels savings might be small for this one action, it’s a fairly easy thing for me to abstain from (especially since I already own hair I can reuse).

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