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THE BALD FACTS

For Jeannie Reif, hair has been a hassle for over a decade.

Swimming pools, high winds and bright lights were the enemy. Mousse, spray and a skillfully wielded blowdryer were her allies in the fight to conceal a scalp that was a bit too obvious to her careful eye.

"I would get mad at my own hair," said Reif, 32, a Tampa secretary. "It made me really self conscious when I'd see all these girls with beautiful hair."

As the years went on, Otto Diekmann found himself parting his hair lower and lower, combing ever-longer, ever-thinner strands over his ever-balder scalp. He knew that male-pattern baldness is perfectly normal, but that didn't help.

"I never got used to the fact that my hair was getting thinner and thinner. It just didn't sit well with me," said Diekmann, 54, a mortgage broker from Boca Raton.

"Nobody wants to be bald."

Reif and Diekmann are two of the roughly 35-million men and 21-million women in this country who know what it's like to look in the mirror and see an alarming amount of scalp peek through once-thick hair.

Most balding men don't do anything about the situation, except perhaps mourn their lost manes and comb what's left a little more creatively. Women, more accepting of cosmetic illusions, tend to compensate quickly by donning wigs or getting permanent waves to conceal the thinness of their hair.

But interest in baldness-related products is undeniable. Consider GLH Formula Number 9 Hair System, perhaps better known as "hair in a can," now seen on TV screens everywhere. It's the brainchild of Ron Popeil, the marketing whiz behind the Veg-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman.

Popeil, whose gray hair is balding in back, doesn't even pretend that the stuff he sells is hair. It just clings to whatever hair there is, tints the scalp beneath to match, and washes out in the shower. So far, he's sold about a half-million cans at $39 each, according to USA Today.

Once the exclusive province of jokesters and hucksters, baldness has been attracting serious scientific attention in recent years. Common as it is, the causes of baldness have been a mystery. Now researchers are coming closer to finding out why follicles fail.

And remedies, ranging from new drugs aimed at blocking the hormonal action thought to prompt baldness to electrical scalp stimulation to revive failing follicles, are being tested around the world.

The financial success of minoxidil, the topically applied lotion that is the only government-approved hairloss remedy, has inspired some of the research. Still more has been spurred by scientists who are studying hair growth to learn more about different types of cellular action, including the growth of cancerous cells.

Minoxidil, widely known as Rogaine, the Upjohn Co., brand name, has been a disappointment to many people who have found that its success is limited mostly to those who haven't yet lost much hair.

"It wasn't the panacea we all hoped it would be," said Dr. Neil A. Fenske, the chief of dermatology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. "But it has prompted scientific interest in the issue. I'm optimistic that in the next few years we'll have something infinitely better."

When all that's involved is natural balding, Fenske's favored "treatment" is to reassure a worried patient that nothing is wrong with him.

That usually works, but not always.

"The male psyche is a funny thing," Fenske said. "Some put a great deal of credence, insofar as their masculinity is concerned, in whether they can grow a full head of hair."

That's good news for those who see bucks in all those bald spots.

Careful shopping frequently is not a characteristic of a man traumatized over his hair loss.

Eddie Dunn, who owns the hair-replacement business that bears his name in St. Petersburg, said he thinks men ought to comparison-shop to make sure they're getting good quality and a good price. But the men he sees are often too eager to cover their balding scalps.

"Most of them are so desperate, they're easy sells," Dunn said.

Baldness has always been with us, and so have its remedies. But these are better days than usual for the hair business.

"Rogaine was probably the biggest shot in the arm to the hair replacement industry, because it got men to admit they didn't want to be bald," said John Vincent, owner of Advantage Studios, a hair-piece business with offices in Tampa and Orlando.

Fashion also has played a role. "The younger man of today is much more alarmed with hair loss," said Mike Mahoney, executive director of the American Hair Loss Council. "Back in the late '50s and early '60s, everybody had a crew cut, so everybody looked bald anyway."

As early as 1923, Congress held hearings on various snake-oil potions that promised to restore hair. But it wasn't until 1990 that the Food and Drug Administration declared it illegal for anyone to claim that any product other than minoxidil could grow hair.

Nevertheless, the American Hair Loss Council estimates that last year, $80-million was spent on cosmetics that don't grow hair.

In 1991, consumers bought $143-million worth of Rogaine, according to Forbes magazine.

Yet even Upjohn, the manufacturer, says only about half the users experience good or moderate hair growth from a drug that costs $50-$70 a month.

Forbes says that $350-million a year is spent on hair pieces, and another $250-million on hair-transplant surgery. Nobody knows how much of that goes for pieces that look like rugs, and surgery that looks like plugs.

But most times, people who aren't happy with their purchases don't complain to the proper authorities, which means it takes much longer to track down and shut down the charlatans, Mahoney said.

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