Everything You Need to Know About Hair Extensions

Hair experts break down the benefits of extensions and how to determine the best type for your lifestyle.

Photo by Courtesy of Heather Muir

Hair extensions tend to get a bad rap, especially when the clips peek out of the scalp, the color doesn't quite match the rest of the hair, or the length rivals that of Rapunzel's. These telltale signs of extensions can look fake, obvious, and even cheap. But with better quality, more natural-looking hair and innovative application methods now available, extensions can serve as a solution for some of your biggest hair concerns. The best part: When done correctly, no one has to know you're even wearing them.

"Though it's tempting to pop into a beauty supply store to buy clip-ins off the rack, you'll get the most natural-looking results if you go to a professional salon that offers 100 percent human hair extensions," says Monica Thornton, owner of RPZL Hair Extension & Blowout Bar in New York City. Still, extensions aren’t for everyone.

Are hair extensions right for me?

You want a confidence boost. Longer, fuller, shinier locks are a sign of youth. As we age, our hair thins (though some are more genetically prone to this than others). Similar to a great blowout or a killer pair of shoes, hair extensions can give you a little pep in your step.

You want to change up your look. Bored with your strands? Extensions allow you to experiment with color without bleaching your hair. "Clip in one pink streak for the night or try ombre without frying or permanently altering your style," suggests Matt Fugate, senior stylist at Sally Hershberger Downtown in New York City.

You want to grow out a bob. If you have a short cut that you're desperate to grow out, extensions will instantly add length and ease your frustration. "It'll help get you to that ponytail stage," says Fugate.

Are there different types of extensions?

1. Clip-in (around $250 for a full set). Most women are great candidates for these temporary, reusable extensions. For those women with alopecia or psoriasis, a wig is a better option. Perfect for an event—a wedding or reunion, for example—they can be heat-styled with a curling iron or flat iron and removed the same day. When applying them yourself, the key is to tease your roots before clipping them in to ensure a secure grip. Shampoo the strands every six uses.

2. Tape (around $550 for a full set). This type of extension is sandwiched between two pieces of bioadhesive tape and lasts for six to eight weeks. While wearing them, shampoo with a sulfate-free formula and refrain from applying conditioner to your roots—the oil in it will loosen the tape. Hot yoga buffs and gym rats, these are not for you. If you do exercise while wearing them, apply dry shampoo beforehand to help soak up any moisture and prevent sweat from loosening the tape.

3. Keratin (around $850 for a full set). These extensions promise three to four months of good hair days and are the most discrete of the bunch. Instead of using a traditional heat application, which can damage the hair, these are applied using an ultrasound technology that turns the keratin (a glue) from a solid to a liquid and back to a solid in just a second. The process takes about two hours and is the smartest option for women who workout often, swim (since they can withstand salt water and chlorine), and often wear their hair up (since the look is the most seamless).

How do I choose the right match for my hair?

Extensions come in all colors and textures, spanning from blonde to purple and stick straight to super curly. When choosing your shade, err on the darker side to maintain a natural look. As for texture, it's best to match the extensions to your hair's original state, so you can air-dry in a pinch.

What questions do I need to ask?

Before getting extensions, choose a reputable salon. If you don't live in a big city, it's especially important to do your homework. "Ask a ton of questions—if the salon is trustworthy, they'll be able to answer all of them," says Fugate.

1. What kind of extensions do you use? You want the answer to be 100 percent human hair.

2. Where do you source the hair from? The most common places are India and Europe. If you're brunette or want to add volume, Indian hair is your best bet. If you're blonde or have finer hair, European is a better fit (though a bit pricier).

3. Do you use "remy hair?" Remy hair is a process in which the cuticles are kept in tact (and laid in the same direction) while the hair is collected and treated, so hair is smoother and less frizzy.

How do I care for my extensions?

The key to prolonging the life of your extensions is keeping them untangled. When you sleep, wrap your hair into a loose braid or ballerina bun, which will prevent hair from rubbing against your pillow and knotting. A few times a day, mist on a lightweight, leave-in conditioner spray, like It's a 10 Miracle Leave-In Conditioner ($14, target.com) to prevent knots from forming. To combat the inevitable tangles, try Satin Strands Mini Looper Paddle Brush ($4, sallybeauty.com), a loop brush that will help detangle hair at your scalp. And, lastly, hair extensions take longer to dry than regular hair because they've been processed and hold onto moisture, so a good blow dryer will help you save time and arm power.