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A secret you share with stylist

Ask John Vincent whether the product he sells is any good, and he's liable to offer up his own head as a testimonial.

Nine years ago, the top of Vincent's head was so slick, a friend gave him a bowling-ball polisher as a gag. Now he's got a thicket of salt-and-pepper hair and a thriving business, Advantage Studios, to go with it.

Vincent is one of a number of hair entrepreneurs who wants to tell the balding world that it is possible to get a piece that doesn't look like a dead animal and that won't fly off in a stiff wind.

"All people see are the bad jobs," said Roy Morlen, president of Apollo Hair Systems of Florida. "Our work goes unnoticed."

So don't call their products toupees. Phrases like "hair replacement systems" are preferred.

"When I was a barber, I always thought it would be neat to make a hairpiece look like someone's own growing hair, not some toupee stuck on the head," said Eddie Dunn, who has a hair replacement business bearing his own name in St. Petersburg.

Today, the most natural looking pieces are custom made with ultra-thin bases that look like skin. That, along with the hand-knotting of the hair, allows these pieces to avoid a "wig look" along the hairline and the part. A good hairpiece should look natural even when it's tossed by the wind, or gets wet.

It can be attached to the natural hair by many methods, such as weaving, sewing or using tiny clips. Most popular with younger men today, however, is the use of adhesives. Some allow the piece to stay in place for up to a week. Others keep it bonded to a band of close-cropped hair for at least a month, and it must be professionally removed, cleaned and reattached when the client goes in to have his own hair trimmed.

Consumers should run from anyone who claims to permanently attach a hairpiece. Experts say there's no safe way to do it _ the only permanent solution is hair-transplant surgery using your own hair.

A company in New Jersey claims to achieve permanent attachment _ by suturing the piece to the scalp _ and has a stack of lawsuits to show for it. The procedure is painful, and sometimes leads to infection and scarring. It isn't done in Florida, but local doctors and hair piece salespersons say they've seen men here who went to New Jersey for the procedure and regretted it.

Shop carefully for a hair business you like _ it's a big investment, worn every day, and you'll be returning for maintenance.

"Put aside your natural fear of discussing your problem and visit two or three locations," Vincent advises. "See who offers professionalism and empathy, and whose process makes the most sense."

The cost? Between $900 and $3,500, depending on the thickness and length, whether the hair is natural or man-made, and where you get it. A piece worn every day usually lasts one to two years. Some businesses advise customers to purchase two hair pieces so one can be worn while the other is maintained.

There's also the "hair integration system" for people who have hair all over their heads, but would like to thicken it. The system has a flexible base that looks like a loosely woven hair net. The wearer pulls her own hair through the holes, anchoring it in place.

Jeannie Reif, a Tampa secretary, recently bought one from Advantage Studios to augment her own copper curls that have thinned after years of rough handling. Her cost was $700, since she chose synthetic hair. The change is subtle enough that some people have noticed only that her hair looks better, not that she has added to it.

On a recent night out with friends, she met a man who is a hairstylist.

"He came up to me and said, "You have such nice hair. You just need to pouf your bangs a little.' He touched them, but he couldn't tell. That made me feel really good."

TYPES OF BALDNESS

Androgenetic alopecia. This is often known as male pattern baldness, although women can also inherit the predisposition to hair loss. The tendency can be passed down through the mother's side of the family, the father's side or both. The hair doesn't actually fall out any faster than normal; rather, follicles gradually shrink to the point of producing barely visible peach fuzz. In men, baldness usually follows a well defined pattern. In women, the thinning tends to occur all over the head. Scientists think a combination of heredity and hormones explains common baldness. In some men and women, certain hair follicles are more receptive to the male hormone testosterone, which somehow gradually shuts down hair production.

Telogen Effluvium. This is when hair falls out in response to some form of stress, such as crash dieting, a high fever, pregnancy, or emotional turmoil. Normally, 20 percent of hair follicles are resting, or not producing hair. But in telogen effluvium, a greater proportion of the follicles "shut down," and more hairs fall out, sometimes quite dramatically. The condition is more common in women than men. Hair usually reappears slowly after the stress disappears.

Anagen Effluvium. This is a response to medications that affect the hair follicle, such as chemotherapy. Hair usually returns when the medical treatment is completed, although it may take some time to return to its original color and texture.

Alopecia areata. This condition is related to an immune system gone haywire; the body actually rejects its own hair. Some patients lose just a patch of hair. Others lose everything, including eyebrows and eyelashes, a condition called alopecia universalis. Sometimes the hair reappears as mysteriously as it disappeared. Some patients respond well to medical treatments, such as cortisone, a drug that fights the immune response. Others learn to live without hair, sometimes with the help of a support group. For most people, the immune-system warfare is confined to their hair. About 6 percent experience other immune-related problems. The condition tends to run in families, although it can appear in people with no family history of it.

_ Sources: Dr. Neil A. Fenske, head of the dermatology department at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, and the American Hair Loss Council

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