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Hair Extensions: The Everything Guide

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We all like to add a little length to our hair every now and then, but of course, it's never as easy as it seems. Enter: extensions. There are so many options from clip-ins to wigs: where does a woman begin?

How you wear extensions is up to you: it comes down to the look you’re going for, how long you plan to commit to the style at hand, and the method that works with your particular texture of hair. Whether you’re a frequent gym-goer looking to maintain your mane while sweating hard, a runway-inspired fashion maven who changes her hair just as often as she does her shoes, or a woman simply looking to change her look for the season, we have (with a little help from some of the country’s most famed hairstylists) rounded up the best options for you—no matter your hair type.

So, When Should You Use Extensions—and Why?

There are plenty of great reasons to get extensions: wanting to wow at a special occasion, needing an everyday boost of glamour, or something in between are all great reasons to get extensions. "They're perfect for creating a signature look, protecting and giving your hair a breather, or for changing your style without the commitment," says stylist and Heat Free Hair creator Ngozi Opara.

The honest truth is that it doesn’t get much more versatile than extensions. Whether it’s the color of your hair or just the length, you can switch it up effortlessly. Extensions can also aid in hair growth, says celebrity hair stylist and educator Sacha Quarles: "By alternating rows amongst your hair, extensions will serve as a cushion to keep your hair from rubbing on anything, promoting growth."

And they can be a year-round thing. Perhaps curls are fun for the summer months, but you want to try out sleek, straight locks for the winter. As long as you’re keeping your own hair healthy and well-nourished in the process, the possibilities are endless.

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Wefted hair. Image: Heat Free Hair

What Kinds of Extensions Are There?

Not only is that a great question, but a very loaded one! There are choices that can be applied with ease, including wigs and clip-ins. Celebrity stylist and Kimble Hair Studio owner Kim Kimble loves these easy pieces for "a really fun way to temporarily switch up your look." But for more of a commitment, there are plenty of longer alternatives, Opara adds, such as "wefted hair that can be sewn in, tape-in hair pieces that are applied with adhesive, strand by strand extensions that can be applied through linking or using heat to fuse with your hair strands, and also strand by strand braid/twists styles are all options."

The individual single strand application using 100% human hair is definitely the most popular option for the celebrity set. They're virtually invisible, and can last anywhere from four to six months—when done by an extension stylist, of course.

The tape-in method is one of the hottest emerging extension trend, but it's another job for a total pro, according to Quarles. About the process, he explains, "The extensions are heated between two layers of your hair in about two inch wide pieces. The hair can be reused, though you’ll need to have them removed and moved back up closer to the scalp periodically."

Weaves are probably the most talked about system, though they only refer to one kind of application.

The bead approach is a bit more obvious than the other technique. It's completed by threading a piece of your hair through the bead and then adding a pre-measured strand. The attachment is then squeezed and secured with a plier-like tool. This application allows for two shifts of each piece of hair before new extensions are needed.

Weaves are probably the most talked about system, though they only refer to one kind of application. "A weave is sewn into the hair with a needle and thread after the hair has been braided," explains Eric Rosado, Creative Director of Ted Gibson Salon. He continues, "What’s great about hair weave extensions is that they can be color-customized and cater to all hair types." The hair can also be reused multiple times—which truly gives you more bang for your buck. One precaution that must be taken is to make sure the braids aren’t too tight. Too-tight braids can cause a lot of pain, and will put immense strain on your scalp, sometimes breaking the hair off at the root.

What Kind of Hair Works Best?

This all depends on the style you’re going for, how long you want it to last, and how natural you want it to both look and feel. Almost all of the stylists recommend human hair, as it will blend seamlessly with your own locks. "There are many grades of human hair varying from those blended with synthetic hair all the way up to the rawest form of 100% virgin, unaltered hair," explains Opara.

Kimble is all for virgin Remy hair and breaks down the meaning for us: "As you might imagine, 'virgin' means that it has never been processed. 'Remy' means that it has been collected in such a way that the cuticles of each individual hair are intact and the cuticles on all the hairs run in the same direction." She adds, "In short, this means the hair is softer and silkier than other types. It is the highest quality hair and can be quite pricey, but you really do get what you pay for." What about synthetic hair? "I don't recommend synthetic hair," Kimble says, "It just won't blend in with your natural hair as well, and it's more likely to get tangled and damaged."

How Do You Choose Which Method to Use?

This is where the help of a trusted hair stylist comes into play. Consultations are key to balancing what you actually want with what is possible for your hair. Kimble poses some great questions to keep in mind. "Do you want to just change up your look for a fun night out? Clip-ins are probably the way to go. Do you want to make a long-term switch? Fusion or a sew-in weave is your best bet."

Consultations are key to balancing what you actually want with what is possible for your hair.

Quarles suggests some really fun, temporary pieces that can instantly update your look without the commitment including, "ponytails which now come in every color combo, bangs, pieces that cover your crown area, and assorted round elastic hairpieces that just wrap around, giving you a messy boho-looking bun." You can essentially have a new hairstyle by tomorrow.

How Do You Care for Extensions?

You definitely need to apply a little extra TLC here, but you should essentially treat extensions as you would your own hair. "Use a gentle shampoo and detangling conditioner, as extensions are more prone to tangles," advises Kimble. You must be careful not to yank the hair either, so when you comb, you want to start gently from the tip. Résistance Thérapiste by KÉRASTASE is a great system to use in between your extension installation—Rosado swears by it.

Extensions are no cheap affair, so you want to do all you can to keep them in tip-top shape. Rosado is an advocate for visiting your salon every six to eight weeks, so your stylist can adjust them. This will also help them to last much longer.

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Clip-ins. Image: Heat Free Hair

For pre-bonded styles, you should be leaning on your stylist for their shampoo and conditioner recommendations. "You should also use a great brush like the Mason Person to keep your new strands soft and shiny," proposes Rosado. The tape method requires a higher level of maintenance and you want to be careful that you don't melt the tape with the heat from your blow dryer or flat iron. If this is your application of choice, get into the salon every three weeks to have the tape adjusted.

Oils and serums are a slippery subject when it comes to extensions: pun intended. Quarles doesn’t recommend them, saying, "These products will cause pieces to slip out, matting, and the need to wash it more often."

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Quarles gave us some excellent tips to keep in mind for the summer.

1. Dry shampoo is your friend.

2. Don't sleep with your hair loose: put your hair on top of your head at night. A braid to one side also works.

3. Try to dry the connections every time, even if you want to let them dry naturally.

4. Don't put conditioner on the actual bonds.

5. Don’t be afraid of swimming in a pool or the ocean with your extensions. Just to remember to braid your hair beforehand.

6. Bring your own shampoo and special brush if you frequent blow dry only salons.