For years, people who have thinning hair have hoped for a solution that wouldn't involve drugs, wigs--or perhaps worse--painful and costly hair-transplant surgery. Now, cosmetics companies are introducing a new category of products that they say will produce "thicker, fuller, healthier-looking" hair.
The new products aren't conditioners, which coat the hair shaft to make it feel thicker, and they aren't dressings or mousses, which contain resins that prop up the hair so it looks fuller. The makers of the new products claim that nutrients in the thinning-hair treatments are actually absorbed into the follicle and, in some cases, into the shaft. The result: a thicker head of hair.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Assn., 12% of males begin losing hair by age 25; 37% by age 35. And several studies have found that about 25% of women aged 25 to 54 suffer from thinning hair.
"Not everyone loses hair because of heredity," says Aramis President Jack Wiswall. "Diet and stress are big factors. If the follicle isn't nourished, the hair gets thinner."
Most treatments are liquids that are massaged into the scalp. Foltene from Minnetonka Corp. and Flowlin by Shiseido remain on the hair; Nutriplexx by Aramis is left on overnight. Most manufacturers say that results should be apparent after three months but that hair will thin again if use of the product is discontinued.
In the past, the only way to actually change hair thickness has been with drugs, says Dr. Norman Orentreich, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. "Anything that alters the structure or function of the hair or skin--like making a hair follicle bigger--couldn't be sold over the counter," he says. To increase the diameter of a hair, the follicle--the source from which the hair grows--must expand, according to Orentreich. "I have no evidence that a non-prescription item can increase the diameter of the hair," he says, but adds: "I have no reports on these new products yet."
But George Cioca, director of new-venture technology at Aramis, says a strand of hair can increase in diameter without a change in the size of the follicle. "Because of aging, stress, environmental factors and metabolic processes, the shaft gets thinner. The treatment restores it to its original diameter."
In ads aimed at Americans, cosmetics firms do not imply that their products cause hair to grow. Any product that promises to grow hair or to prevent hair loss is considered a drug and thus is under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. Yet one of these products, Foltene, has been sold for the past five years in Europe as a hair restorative . It is sold here as a hair treatment .
Nutriplexx is currently sold only in the United States, but Wiswall says that when it is marketed in Europe, advertisements "will meet the government standards in each country," meaning that it will compete with products claiming to restore hair.
Flowlin has been sold in the United States at Shiseido counters in department stores since September. But in Japan, where it has been available since 1982, it is sold as an over-the-counter drug with hair-restorative claims.
Products that make different claims in different countries pose an interesting question for the FDA. Roma Krause, assistant to the director of drug-labeling compliance at the agency, says that if there was a problem, for instance, because a consumer bought a product in the United States based on an ad that was read outside the United States, the FDA would look at several key issues: "Does the man on the street recognize it (this kind of product) for what it is meant to be? What do consumers think it does? Are they being defrauded?"
It remains to be seen how Americans will respond to thinning-hair treatments. Consumers have been conditioned to be suspicious, and some still associate such products with snake-oil tonics sold more than a century ago. But Patty Payne, divisional merchandise manager of cosmetics for Bullock's, which has carried Flowlin since October and Nutriplexx since February, says that skepticism will diminish when customers see the desired results.
"Thinning-hair treatments are the hottest trend in cosmetics," she says. "And our customers are sophisticated."
The treatments are expensive--from about $20 to $90. But, as one 36-year-old Los Angeles man, whose hair started to thin at 23, says, "If they make the hair even a little thicker than it was before the balding began, then it will be worth it."
Model: Brian Hyder