The bald truth about growing hair – research on hair-growing drug minoxidil

The bald truth about growing hair – research on hair-growing drug minoxidil – related article on the chemistry of shampoos

Penny Ward Moser

In the 1982-83 season of his life, a chubby, balding 41-year old Connecticut electrician named Bill Jur inske started swinging for the fences. When his 23-year marriage ended, he lost 45 pounds, kicked a three-pack-a-day habit, and began running 32 miles a week. Then he grew his hair back.

”Just for the heck of it,” says Jurinske, he became a human guinea pig for Ronald Savin, a New Haven surgeon and dermatologist who was testing a hair-growing drug called minoxidil. Within 18 months Jurinske’s balding pate was revisited by some of the long-gone locks of his high school days. At the bottom of his chart, Savin jotted down: ”This guy’s the greatest. He’s a home run!”

Home Run Jurinske is one of some 2,400 volunteers who’ve undergone treatment with minoxidil in clinical trials conducted by dermatologists across the country. So far, says Upjohn, the drug’s manufacturer, it has grown some hair on about 75 per cent of the users. Not always in great clumps, to be sure–mostly thin fuzz on about a quarter, but a cosmetically significant amount on eight per cent of the subjects. The lucky ones like Jurinske, Savin says, have grown hair ”that you’d notice across a room.”

Today Upjohn is seeking government approval to sell minoxidil asa hair grower under the trade name Regaine Topical Solution. If the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves Upjohn’s 163-vol- ume new drug application, it’ll be the first time that tough agency has ever put its stamp on a hair restorer. But it’s a sure bet other hair-growing drugs won’t be far behind in what seems to be the start of a phar- maceutical sweepstakes. Already American Cyanamid’s Lederle Labs’ experimental compound Viprostol has shown tremendous promise in early trials, and Le derle is said to have a second hair-grower up its sleeve.

In these narcissistic times, our hair has become the single mostfussed-over area of our bod- ies. This year Americans will spend about $5 billion to clean, condition, curl, straighten, color, mousse, and gel their locks, and cope with the heartbreak of trichoptilo sis–split ends. That’s the price of two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and more than the 1987 budget request for Star Wars. While we’re all taught that character and personality are what really count, the bottom line is that Crockett and Tubbs have great hair.

When the Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center announced one Friday in March of 1983 that it was looking for volunteers to test minoxidil’s hair-growing properties, it came under siege. Says Thomas Nigra, chief of dermatology, ”We immediately got ten thousand calls from across the country. The calls overwhelmed the hospital’s trunk lines and froze the switchboard. We had to gear up our disaster control center and staff the phones with volunteers from the accounting department.”

Man’s battle against andro- genetic alopecia–common male pattern baldness–goes back as far as recorded history, at least. Egyptian papyrus writings from 2000 B.C. suggested preventing baldness by applying to the scalp equal parts of fat from a snake, a lion, a hippopotamus, a crocodile, a goose, and an ibex. Roman coins show that Caesar parted his hair above one ear and combed some pathetic long strands over to the other. Between then and now hucksters have sold men everything from bull semen to mayonnaise to rub on their balding domes. And although the hope for hair springs eternal, to the tune of some $200 million a year in the U.S. alone, nothing has ever reversed male pattern baldness–until now.*

Credit the pharmacologists at the Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Mich., a 100-year- old drug company best known for having brought us Kaopec tate. In 1979 the FDA gave Upjohn approval to market Loni ten tablets, a high-blood-pressure medication containing the compound minoxidil, a po- tent vasodilator (a substance that expands the blood vessels) whose occasional side effects– dizziness, pain, nausea, increased heart rate, and difficulty in breathing–made it something of a last-resort treatment. Inexplicably, it also grew hair on many of its users, not only on their heads, but randomly over much of their bodies. Most minoxidil users weren’t wild about this. But it got Upjohn scientists to wondering. What would happen if they put minoxidil in a lotion and rubbed it on a balding scalp? What did happen was the first real breakthrough in the quackery-riddled history of baldness ”cures.”

Male pattern baldness usually starts as hair thins on the crown of the head, while the hairline recedes in an M pattern. It’s a secondary male sexual characteristic, like the deepening of the voice at puberty. In the American gene pool, the percentage of bald men runs just about parallel with age: 25 per cent of 25-year- olds, 50 per cent of 50-year- olds, 75 per cent of 70 year olds. To be a candidate for baldness, a man simply has to: 1) have a geneti predisposition toward it–which is possible if anyone in his family, on either side, has ever been bald; and 2) have a normal complement of male hormones to carry out the genetic code’s instructions. ”Baldness,” says Savin, ”is a sexual marker, just like well developed breasts on a woman.”

Throughout history men have reached deep into their pockets to try to buy their hair back. ”Losing my hair was sort of like cancer,” says John Var rone Jr., 42, of New Haven, another of Savin’s minoxidil patients, who began going bald at 17. ”Once it started, it wouldn’t stop.” Varrone tried everything. ”I’d drive all the way to New York City once a week to get injections in my scalp. Nothing worked.”

Scientists themselves have ventured down a number of fairly bizarre paths to find out why men lose their hair. In 1965 a Howard University anatomy professor claimed that baldness was caused by great intelligence. He theorized that the brain grew larger in smart men, stretching the scalp across the head until it was too tight to hang onto the hair. A few years earlier some scientists speculated that the bald-headed African wattled starling could be the animal model they needed to solve the mystery of baldness. (It wasn’t.) A recurring notion is that baldness is caused by some sort of accumulation of crud on the head, like waxy build-up on your kitchen floor. To combat this, at least one huckster laced his elixir with paint thinner.

Big, serious-looking ads for baldness cures appear in the pages of even respectable newspapers and magazines. They quote little-known ”scientists” at obscure labs. Their magic potions have been peddled since the patent medicine tent shows of the 1800s. ”Mir acle” cures often find their way across the ocean from Europe, the suggestion being that the Old World knows something we don’t. Often these ads imply a kind of national conspiracy, led by the FDA, to keep Americans in the dark about baldness cures.

The ingredients of most baldness medicines are those found in shampoos, conditioners, or foodstuffs. In fact, in 1908 a Springfield, Mass. paper chemist, John Breck, set out to cure his baldness by concocting a variety of hair potions. He died a millionaire in 1965, America’s leading shampoo maker. But he was still bald. Recent favorite ingredients include ascorbic acid, benzoic acid, wheat germ oil, propylene glycol (a preservative in some cat foods), polysorbate (a component of commercial salad dressings), biotin (a vitamin B complex), and an old standby, amino acids. ”Amino acids are meat,” says Savin. ”If you think you can cure baldness with amino acids you might just as well walk around with a piece of meat slapped on your head.”

Probably the biggest nationwide promotion these days is for something called Nutriol, which is labeled and advertised as a hair conditioner. The Provo, Utah firm that imports the Italian product calls it ”The Se cret of Youth,” and some 14,000 Americans are said to be selling it. Although the company says it discourages the practice, many of its salesmen tell customers that Nutriol pre- vents hair loss and stimulates hair growth. The substance contains caramel and watercress, among other things. While it may be a dandy hair conditioner, one dermatologist calls it salad oil.

Baldness quackery is sometimes encouraged by what researchers call a placebo effect. Any special attention to the scalp–daily washing and vigorous massage, for example– can startle a few hair follicles into some very minor, temporary action. If a bald man rubbed peanut butter on his head every night for three months, he might notice a few hairs responding. No one knows why this happens, but it does. The other factor at work in the placebo effect is that once someone spends a bundle on a hair restorer, when he stares at himself in the mirror he’s apt to think he has more hair. Says Arthur Bertolino, director of the New York University Medical Center’s hair consultation unit, ”Some studies show that even when the data don’t support documentation of any new hair growth, some twenty per cent of the product’s users are satisfied that there’s been an improve- ment.” Says Savin, ”The things you see in ads are usually bull. They’re successful for the same reasons witch doctors were.”

The FDA, along with the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Postal Service, has spent decades chasing after baldness quacks. Occasionally they manage to close down an operation or even put someone in jail. ”But since these things aren’t generally life threatening, and are, at worst, cases of economic fraud,” says FDA spokesman Bruce Brown, ”they don’t get top priority.” The FDA says unequivocally that no over-the-counter preparation has ever been proved to grow hair. In his 24 years as a dermatologist, Savin has seen everything. ”I’ve had guys come in to me and say, ‘I’ve found a cure for baldness.’ I think the last one was acupuncture. Anyway, I always tell them, ‘Good, bring in a bald man and let me photograph him, then treat him for nine months, and bring him back with a head of hair. When you can do that, I’ll have the president of any major drug compa- ny you like sitting here in my office.’ They never return.”

While most quack remedies hurt only the wallet, some can be downright dangerous. These include head filing, a treatment that involves slitting open the scalp and filing the tissue between the skull and hair follicles to thin the membrane over the skull, which is supposed to wake up the follicle.

Not that everyone would mind such radical therapy. There’s a story dermatologists love to tell: an 18-year-old Washington, D.C. youth with a rapidly receding hairline pleaded with his doctor to help him hold onto his hair. ”There’s only one way we can stop your hair from falling out,” the dermatologist said. ”Castration. We’d have to cut off your testicles.” The young man thought for a moment. ”Well, O.K.,” he said.

Those who get the short end of the genetic stick will find theirmale hormones starting to take away the hair on their heads just when they’re commanding other body hair to become long and coarse. At puberty, the gonads and adrenals secrete androgens–male hormones, the most powerful and prevalent of which is testosterone–into the blood stream. The liver produces blood plasma proteins that bind to most androgens, leaving only a small percentage of free androgens wandering around in the blood stream. Some of these enter the cells of the hair follicles, where a specific enzyme, 5-alpha-reductase, converts them to more active androgens called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This DHT hooks itself onto a highly specific cell protein, and together they move into the nuclei of hair follicle cells, where they stimulate the genetic transmitters that give the follicles their orders. These include commands to the sebaceous glands to step up their oil-producing activity, which contributes to the occurrence of acne. (Researchers at the University of Miami medical school recently found that sebaceous glands in bald scalps have a stronger affinity and a greater capacity for binding male hormones, which may shed some light on a part of the baldness puzzle.) The genetic transmitters also order other follicles in the body–particularly those in the armpis, across the chest, on the face, and in the pubic area–to crank out darker, thicker, longer hair. Finally, for reasons that aren’t understood, DHT tells the genetic machinery inside some of the scalp follicles to start shutting down. With this, at whatever rate is assigned them, the follicles begin to atrophy.

The hair on a bald man’s head doesn’t just fall out. It cycles down (see illustration, page 77). Science knows that it happens, but not why. This is due largely to the fact that hair, and the intricate follicles that produce it, constitutes a world unto itself.

First of all, the body has about two million hair follicles, each of which is itself a whole organ–a tiny hair factory made up of several different parts. Inside the follicle the hair shaft is created, pigment ed, assembled, oiled by the sebaceous glands, sent out to battle the elements, and finally discarded. The hair shaft itself is mostly water and keratin, constructed of 50 different proteins assembled into several layers and covered with hundreds of cuticles, which look like shingles on a house.

The hair fiber is tough and elastic. Even if you pull it, twist it, cover it with chemicals and bake it again and again, it usually hangs in there for its full life span, about four or five years. It grows in cycles. By about five months before we’re born, our follicles have been assigned positions on the skin and given programs that will determine the size, color, shape, and texture of the hair they will produce. The follicles don’t work to any real extent until a couple of months before birth, when they gear up for a sort of trial run, producing tiny hairs called lanugo (Latin for down). These prototype hairs are shed in utero, and depending on the genetic program, some of the follicles go right back to work making more serious hairs. This is why some babies show luxuriant locks in their nursery pictures, while others look like little dough balls. Baby hair, called vellus hair, is eventually shed and replaced by what dermatologists confusingly call terminal hair.

Each of the hair follicles will forever follow its own program, heedless of what the follicles around it are doing (although there may be a collective pattern to their actions). This is why it’s possible to have hair transplants, which relocate ”plugs” of hair–small, circular bits of skin, deep enough to include entire hair shafts, along with their bulbs, sebaceous glands, and arrector pili muscles–from other parts of the scalp. (Other areas wouldn’t do. Pubic hairs, for instance, are generally too short and wispy to make suitable head hair, and their tiny apocrine glands would make the scalp smell like the genital region.)

The scalp has about 100,000 hair follicles, or some 1,000 per square inch. Blonds can have up to 140,000, but they tend to produce thinner hair than their more pigmented colleagues. Brunets have 110,000 follicles, redheads 90,000. During a person’s lifetime, the scalp follicles produce more than 15 pounds of hair. The cross sections of curly hairs are oval, and kinky ones flat like a ribbon; both come out of oval follicles. Straight hairs are round and come out of round follicles. Thin hairs come out of skinny follicles, coarse hairs out of larger ones. Pubic hair is sometimes straighter than scalp hair among curly-headed people, and curlier than scalp hair in straight-haired folks. The mightiest follicles produce beard hair, the most diminutive produce the tiniest hairs of all, those on the nose and the tops of the ears and eyelids.

Scalp hair grows about half an inch a month to a maximum of two to three feet. Women’s hair grows faster than men’s. The hair on the top of the head grows a little faster than the hair on the sides. It all grows faster in summer than in winter. Hair grows for about 48 hours after you die, and a plug of hair removed from the scalp can live for three weeks without you if its roots are kept in a saline solution. After a hair has been in place for two to six years, its follicle takes a break of several months, changing its shape and entering the telogen phase, when it stops producing new hair cells. During this period the follicle holds the hair loosely. It can fall out at any time, or be pushed out by the new hair that will eventually come from the same follicle; if you’re really lucky, some follicles will hold on to both, or maybe even three, shafts at once, resulting in an abundant head of hair. If you hold a shed hair up to the light and examine the root end, you can determine whether it has fallen out normally or broken off. The normal hairs from a resting follicle have a little protein ”glop” on the end.

The good news, cosmetically speaking, is that hairs cycle at random–otherwise we’d have several months of baldness every four or five years. At any given time 85 per cent of our hairs are growing and 15 per cent are resting. On a given day, 75 to 100 hairs will fall out of your head, and the same number will go back to work. But in a balding scalp, as the follicles commence a new cycle, they gradually produce shorter, thinner, lighter hairs, until finally the little hairs are barely visible. If you look at a bald man sideways on a sunny day, unless he’s very old or has been bald for decades, you’ll see that he really does have hair. You’ll hardly notice it, though, because the follicles, which have cycled down and become infantile, are producing only baby hairs.

The hair on the rest of the body also cycles, but it doesn’t go through quite such dramatic changes at puberty. All body hair grows at about the same rate, but cycles at different rates to produce different lengths. Of the major hair on our bodies, beard hair has the longest growing period, while eyelid hairs have one of the shortest. The hair on our legs and arms grows only a month or so before taking a long rest.

Hair doesn’t leave fossil records, so the evolution of our skin from very hairy to relatively naked is unclear. But somewhere along the line, we lost not our hair but our hairiness. We still have the same number of hair follicles as our hairier ancestors. It’s just that on most parts of our bodies those follicles have stepped back production, making only short, fine hairs. With the ex- ception of our dust-catching hairs, those in our ears and nose and our eyelashes and eyebrows, few body hairs have an important function. What you see on your forearm is a sort of memento of days of yore. While most body hair doesn’t do much, it all points downward to help rain and sweat run off. The hair root, however, doesn’t know that the shaft on top is a sort of useless decoration. That’s why we still get shivers or goose bumps. Goose bumps are a reflex left over from a time when they really served a purpose. When the arrector pili muscle contracts, it yanks down the follicle, making the hair stand straight up. This isn’t much good for anything today, except maybe in the romantic sense (as in ”You give me goose bumps”). But if each of our wispy body hairs were coarse and a couple of inches long, this reflex would help protect us from the cold and our enemies. Just as birds fluff their feathers, we could once respond to chill by fluffing up our hairs and improving their insulating qualities. And just as a cat or dog bristles before a fight we could count on our ar rector pili muscles to make all our hairs stand up on end, so we’d loom larger before our foes. We haven’t totally lost this talent, but our diminished hair shafts make it highly unlikely that, say, just before some guy takes a swing at you in a bar, you could flash your arm hair and back him down.

Sexual hair, particularly that of our armpits and pubic areas, remains fairly well intact, but has sort of fallen by the cultural wayside. We have hair in these areas because we have odor-producing glands there. The apocrine glands in the pubic region spread their juices to surrounding hairs, which trap the scent as a sexual attractant. Likewise our armpits hold our own particular body odor, which perhaps had some sort of communication function back before Americans began spending more than a billion dollars a year for deodorants and resorting to beepers and paging systems.

No matter how often men are told that baldness is part of the natural course of life, it’s a part that most would happily get along without. Savin, who has had hair transplants and even experimented with mi- noxidil, is of the opinion that ”baldness is biologically beautiful. It’s like the comb on a rooster. It simply means you’re mature. But our society puts a great premium on hair. And it sees baldness as post-mature, a sign of aging.”

Like the young man who considered castration just to keep his hair, some men focus on their baldness ”as a kind of screen onto which they can project most of their fears and self-doubts,” says Stefan

Pasternack, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University’s medical school. ”For most men,” he says, ”baldness isn’t a big deal, although you can get a sunburn on your head, which is a bore. For others, baldness is a kind of displacement–a focus for their insecurities. You might say that a bald head is to a man what flabby arms are to a woman. The individual worries about it much more than society does.”

One group that doesn’t worry about it at all is a colony of stump-tailed macaques at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center. These gregarious little monkeys, which begin to show male-pattern baldness at puberty, have been testing hair-growing drugs since 1982. Hideo Uno, a phy- sician overseeing the tests, says he now has twelve formerly bald monkeys sporting drug- grown hair. ”I don’t think the macaques care who’s bald and who isn’t,” Uno says. ”They worry more about their teeth. If anything, they probably find baldness kind of dignified.”

In agreement with the macaques are the Bald Headed Men of America, a 10,000- member group based in More head City, N.C. ”Morehead, less hair!” guffaws its founder, bald old-boy John Capps III, 45, publisher of the occasional bulletin Chrome Dome News. Says Capps, ”I started waving goodbye to my hair at fifteen, like my daddy before me.” He started the group 13 years ago as a baldness liberation front, as it were. Mostly, members have a good time and make up slogans: ”If you ain’t got it, flaunt it”; ”Skin is in”; and ”Fight drugs, plugs, and rugs.” Capps blames our society’s obsession with baldness on ”a lot of folks up there on Fifth and Madison avenues telling males they’re supposed to look a certain way. Makes them insecure. But think about this: when you go into some big business, the guys at the desk downstairs–the ones that greet the people and fill out the forms–they’ve all got their hair. But the ones doing the thinking, the wheeling and dealing, they’re upstairs and they’re bald.” Capps’s theory seems to check out on Dallas, for instance, where all the red- hot lovers have their hair but the rich cronies of the oil cartel are bald. J.R. is somewhere in between and combs his hair funny. Capps recommends that bald men ask themselves this: ”Do you really want to waste your hormones up there growing hair anyway?”

Thus he broaches an area of folklore that supposes that bald menhave greater libidos. While it’s true that you can’t have male pattern baldness without having male hormones, the hormones just don’t count that much. ”The myth that bald men are somehow sexier comes from the idea that if baldness is caused by the hormone testosterone, bald men must have a lot of it, and therefore they’re tigers in bed,” says Estelle Ramey, Georgetown University medical school physiology profes- sor and an expert on hormonal effects. ”But you can’t judge a guy by his hair. Some of the sexiest guys around have full heads of hair. And I’d be willing to bet that a lot of bald men are at a complete loss in bed.

”It’s not simply a matter of hormones. First of all, the genetic predisposition to balding has to be there, or a guy could have enough hormones to make a stallion envious and he wouldn’t be bald. Secondly, the ability to get an erection and sustain it is much more a function of the nervous system than the hormones. The nervous system’s role is so powerful, in fact, that a sexually active man can be castrated and, even without hormone replacement, remain sexually potent for a year.”

Although the bulk of male androgens are produced by the gonads, the adrenal cortex supplies some too. This is why, dermatologists report, the saddest of the balding patients they see are transsexual women who were born men. Even though they’ve had their genitals removed or structurally altered, their adrenals supply enough testosterone to thin out their tresses.

Women can also suffer some degree of common baldness. As in men,it’s the result of a genetic predisposition, but in most women it’s held in check by female hormones, which overpower the andro- gen they also have in their bodies. Some women find their hair thins rapidly after menopause, when the production of female hormones drops. Thus women have joined in seeking minoxidil treatments.

Until the FDA makes its decision, there’s nothing illegal in a physician’s prescribing a minoxidil potion as a baldness treatment. Since minoxidil, as the high-blood-pressure medicine Loniten, is an approved drug, a doctor can order it reformulated as a topical solution–which is simply prescribing a drug for a secondary use, a common practice. But Upjohn and the FDA frown on this, arguing that a person could get a mixture too weak to be useful or too stong to be safe. (Eight people partici pating in various minoxidil studies have died, but according to the FDA the deaths resulted from other things–suicide, AIDS, cardiovascular disease–not the drug.)

Upjohn remains ”cautiously optimistic” that Regaine will be approved as a prescription drug, perhaps within the year. And it has started work on a $26 million addition to its Kalamazoo facilities to produce it. Last year the company’s stock almost doubled, going from 70 1/8 to 133 1/2 on the rumor that Regaine would be balding America’s ticket back to hair. The stock went up 5 points on April 29 when Upjohn announced the preliminary results of their clinical trials, and was near 90 as we went to press, reflecting a 2-for-1 split.

Exactly how minoxidil works is still an enigma. It’s known to bea vasodilator, but so are a lot of things that don’t grow hair. Bertolino says, ”What we know about minoxi dil is that in vitro it slows the aging process of cells, and that it affects the white blod cells’ T-cell helpers. We’re not sure what this means, but it could indicate that the immune system is somehow involved with the balding process. There could be an immunological switch working here.”

At the NYU hair disease research lab, Bertolino and others are looking for the mag- ic switches–the regulatory mechanisms–that govern hair growth. ”We want to see where the important switches are and how we can get a handle on them,” Bertolino says. ”We hope to find out what turns one hair follicle on and another one off.” Bertolino works with an animal model, the lab-bred C57BL/6J mouse, because the strain has a lot of hair problems. Using skin biopsies from the mouse, which has a three-week hair growth/ shedding cycle, Bertolino employs recombinant DNA techniques to snip out bits of genetic materials in hopes of locating the switches. ”The answer is in the DNA,” he says.

The preliminary success of minoxidil has made the highly competitive pharmaceutical world take notice. Right now some two hundred volunteers across the country are rubbing their balding scalps with Lederle’s Viprostol, a synthetic vasodilating prostaglandin (hormone). It’s still too early for the results to be scientifically significant, but gossip in dermatological circles is that Viprostol is growing hair–even some great hair.

In Groton, Conn., Pfizer, a company with a particularly good record in winning FDA approval for its drugs, is cooking up a hair grower in its labs, but has no comment on it. Several other companies are taking a look at possible baldness treatments, but as usual in the ultra-secret, competitive drug business, nobody’s talking.

There are some disadvantages to using minoxidil. First, you won’t know whether it works unless you try it. Second, it’s expensive, with private treatments and the cost of the drug running between $800 and $1,200 a year. And you must use it for the rest of your life. Third, trials show that it works best on young men who haven’t been bald long, and that it works better on the back of the head than on the front. The drug’s greatest strength may be in letting men hold on to what hair they have. It must be applied daily and handled with care. Women who have applied it too liberal- ly have found that their sweat has carried the drug onto their foreheads and they’ve sprouted hair there. Likewise, male joggers have experienced repeated meltdown problems– their minoxidil-laced sweat has trickled down to grow hair on their ears.

It could be said that all this baldness business is much ado about a benign condition that’s normal in man and presumably considered dignified by monkeys. ”But anyone who thinks baldness is funny,” says Washington hair researcher Nigra, ”has never been bald.”

Says Home Run Jurinske: ”I feel I’ve won a round in the war on aging.” His minoxidil-trial colleague John Varrone gets more to the point: ”I didn’t like being bald. I love my new hair. I like to walk into a room and know I look good. When I look good, I feel good. Then everything’s good. And that makes me happy.”


When my sister and I were kids my mother washed our hair every Saturday night just in time to plop us in front of the TV so she could pincurl us while watching Lawrence Welk. The ritual involved two products: Prell, because we liked the way the pearl dropped through the green solution on TV, and vinegar, which rinsed the shampoo out and made the hair shine but left us smelling like pickle juice on Sunday morning.

Life is now more complicated. Lawrence Welk has retired, pincurls are gone, and I got bored with Prell and vinegar. Herein lies the rub: My drug store carries about 50 different shampoos (of the 80 or so brands sold nationwide), many of them promoted on TV by beautiful and sexy people like Victoria Principal or Farrah Fawcett, who are always telling me about hair strength or hair bounce or hair shine. Which of the 50 beckoning shampoos is my best buy?

I decided to de-mystify shampoos by doing a scientific comparison of three brands. The first was Pantene, the most expensive and prettiest bottle on the shelf. It cost $4 for seven ounces. The second was Conair, a 16-ounce bottle on sale for 99 cents (it’s usually $1.49). As my mid-priced brand I picked Suave, which was $1.99 for 16 pink ounces.

At the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association in Washington, a nice lady referred me to some chemistry books in the Library of Congress. ”But isn’t there anyone who could just talk to me?” I asked. ”No,” she said. Most of their 50 staffers were in government liaison and public relations. Next I called the Society of Cosmetic Chemists in New York. Could they find me some old shampoo hand who wasn’t affiliated with a corporation? A lady there got out her old unaffiliated chemists book and read off names. Now I was cooking.

I also called the shampoo makers. Pantene and Conair, both in Connecticut, promised to call back. Suave, in Chicago, transferred me a couple of times until I got a spokeswoman. I told her how clever their commercials are–the ones that say basically, ”When I was poor and struggling I used Suave because of the price, but now that I’m rich and powerful I still use Suav because it’s so good.” But she would only give me the name of their PR firm, where a kindly fellow said he couldn’t answer my questions but would try to find someone who could (but he couldn’t by my deadline).

Time was passing when Conair jingled. ”Look,” said a cheery Jaime Moro zowski, ”I’m not going to tell you everybody else’s product is garbage and mine’s the only one that works–we don’t talk like that in the business–but I can say it’s a quality product at a popular price.” I liked Morozowski. He had called back. He wasn’t stuffy. And he had a charming Latin accent (his Polish parents had wanted to come to the U.S., but the boat to Argentina was cheaper).

I pressed on with my old, unaffiliated chemists. The first didn’t want to be quoted: ”I’m 76 and nothing I say could hurt me much, but I still do some consulting.” The second agreed to help if I didn’t use his name. So I packeted him the labels from my three shampoos and the next morning he had them sorted out. As we moved from lauryl sulfates, to DEA (diethanolamine), to hydroxy-

propyl methylcellulose, to propylene glycols, to methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, I understood why the FDA had said that shampoo stories are ”so complicated as to be undoable.”

The chemist was very patient and I wrote as fast as I could. I learned that shampoos are almost always synthetic detergents instead of soap, because soap like grandma made reacts with the minerals in water and makes scum. Synthetic detergents–your lauryl sulfates–work by having long molecules that have one end attracted to water, the other to grease and dirt. When you suds your hair one end of the little molecule grabs the grunge while the other end carries it off down the drain. DEA’s job is to make shampoo lather, which isn’t terribly important, but since we think it’s important, it is important. Propylene glycol is glycerin combined with alcohol derived from hy- drocarbons. It’s a humectant, which helps the hair shaft hang onto moisture and stablizes fatty acids. (Who’d want a head covered with unstable fatty acids?)

Most of the ingredients that end in cellulose are thickening agents, which again is pretty much only psychologically important, as is glycol stearate, which makes shampoo look opaque or pearly. Some shampoos have hydrolyzed animal protein, which can come from any number of sources, my chemist said. But my heart remembered that the Washington Post had just reported that the 70,000 dead animals picked up from the city’s streets last year went to a rendering plant that converts them into ”supplies” for cosmetic manu- facturers.

Finally, those long, above-mentioned methyls are preservatives that keep bacteria and fungus from growing in your shampoo as it sits on the edge of the tub. A friend of mine who understands chemistry summed up shampoo very nicely: ”You want to know what’s in your shampoo about as much as you want to know what’s in your hotdog.”

As the best buy for the money, my chemist said he’d recommend Conair. I asked him what does he use, this old shampoo hand? ”Any old thing,” he said. Myself, I’m going to buy a big bot- tle of Prell and some vinegar. I’ll find the pickle smell reassuring. Maybe I can even find Lawrence Welk on a UHF channel.-P.W.M.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group