Image by Carly Jean Andrews

The Stories Behind the Craziest Inventions Men Have Used to Color in Their Bald Spots

Because spray-on hair and scalp tattoos beat hair plugs and toupees every time

The quest to combat male pattern baldness has taken many forms over the millennia.

The Ebers Papyrus, from 1550 B.C., suggested sautéeing the leg of a female greyhound and the hoof of a donkey in oil, and applying the result to the scalp for four consecutive days. Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” was plagued by male pattern baldness and prescribed himself a topical concoction of opium, horseradish, pigeon droppings, beetroot and spices. It was an abject failure.

Julius Caesar employed the first combover roughly 300 years later, growing his thinning mane long enough in the back to brush it over his scalp, Trump-style. “Has a Remedy for Baldness Been Discovered at Last?” wondered a 1923 Popular Mechanics advertorial introducing the Merke Thermocap, which promised to “stimulate dormant hair follicles” with the heat of a blue lightbulb. In 1936, The Crosley Corporation, a radio and automobile manufacturer, introduced the Xervac, which purported to “revitalize inactive hair cells” by increasing bloodflow to the scalp via a suction device.

More recently, the $2.5 billion global hair-loss treatment industry has presented men with a carousel of surefire balding panaceas — pills, plugs, foams, shampoos, toupees, transplants, scalp expansion surgery, scalp reduction surgeries and laser light treatments, to name a few. Since the mid-1990s, though, one strategy (and seemingly the most obvious) has endured: artificially coloring the scalp — with a spray, powder or tattoo — to make it appear less bald. When considered alongside such outlandish predecessors, paint-by-numbers hair-loss remedies don’t seem all that absurd. Especially given that all three are still used by millions of men today.

Here are the stories of the preeminent brands in each category.

PART 1: THE SPRAY

In the mid-1990s, Ron Popeil, salesman of the century and inventor of a fleet of home-improvement products including the Popeil Electric Food Dehydrator, Mr. Microphone, Smokeless Ashtray and the Chop/Veg/Whip/Dial/Mince-O-Matic family of kitchen timesavers, pivoted to hair loss, introducing GLH Formula #9 (“Great Looking Hair”), an aerosol spray to hide bald spots. Prior to GLH, the closest thing on the market was shoe polish (which wasn’t all that different).

Tim Samuelson, curator, “But Wait, There’s More!” exhibit featuring Popeil’s greatest inventions; cultural historian, City of Chicago: In the early 1990s, Popeil and his company, Ronco, ran afoul of a financial crisis in Chicago and a meltdown of the banking system that brought down one of the major banks. The company relied heavily on a big line of credit for R&D new products. Ronco’s debt was called in during the banking crisis, and they weren’t in position to pick it up.

Popeil: The pressure was on to come up with another product. Some people think you go into a little room, put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign, and work day-in, day-out until you come up with an idea. But that’s not how it happens. The Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler came out of a casual comment about how much I hate slimy egg whites. Mr. Microphone came from watching someone on TV singing from a wireless mic and thinking how great it would be to make a mass-market item out of that device. Or someone can just walk into your life and drop an idea in your lap. That’s how GLH happened.

A woman named Bernice Altschult and her husband George were close friends of mine and owners of Carlos ‘n’ Charlie’s, my favorite restaurant in L.A. Bernice kept pestering me about an amazing spray she’d seen demonstrated that covered bald spots. But I kept turning her down. After 35 years in the business, my most successful products were for the kitchen. Why would I want to waste my time with a hair product that couldn’t conceivably work? My reluctance ended the moment the product was demonstrated on my own bald spot. It truly was amazing. I looked 10 years younger.

Bernice said a friend of hers brought it back from Australia. The next week my product designer, Alan Backus, and I were on a plane headed Down Under. After researching some stores that carried the product, I was able to find the owner. There were two partners who had an argument and each had developed a similar product. We tracked down two different formulas — one in Sydney and one in Melbourne — and bought the rights for both. Upon our return to the States, we worked to improve the formula. I researched and found a company that would produce an aerosol can that could enhance the two formulas so it would be to my liking.

Samuelson: People assume Popeil chose “#9” for the name because he’d tried multiple formulas before achieving the successful GLH formula. In fact, the name goes back to Popeil’s days pitching products live at Woolworth’s in downtown Chicago. As a young pitchman, Popeil admired the success of Charles D. Kasher, who made a fortune touting a preparation to prevent baldness called Charles Antell Formula No. 9 Hair Pomade. GLH “Formula #9” was a tribute — the ultimate show of respect from master pitchman to master pitchman.

Photos via YouTube and idahoendoflife.com

Popeil: When Alan and I were finished tinkering with the formula, it was just as they say in the infomercials: Amazing! How was it different from the Australian versions? When you put their formula on your hair, it didn’t look real; ours did. We started out with dark brown, medium brown, light brown, black, silver brown, silver black and blond. We didn’t make one for redheads. I felt carrying inventory for such a small group of people wasn’t warranted. I had 99 percent of the population.

It came out in the form of a liquid. But the liquid contained little particles of powder. The liquid would dry off, and you’d be left with the powder. If you look carefully at a man’s bald spot, you’ll see little pieces of hair trying to grow up but not going anywhere. To the naked eye, you’re bald. But there are little follicles of hair still there. The powder would adhere to those little pieces of fuzz. The color itself acted as a kind of paint. So a bald spot that was white became pretty close to the color of your hair. It was as simple as that.

Per usual, next Popeil took to the airwaves. He produced an Incredible Inventions infomercial for $75,000, in which he spent 28 minutes randomly selecting hair-impaired people from the audience and spray painting their domes with GLH #9.

The novelty/absurdity of the GLH infomercial reaffirmed Popeil as a star.

Popeil: I did 20/20, Prime Time Live, CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, The Maury Povich Show, The Joan Rivers Show and countless newspaper interviews, including a cover story in USA Today.

While tagging your bald spot like the side of a panel truck might seem preposterous, the methodology was consistently employed in Hollywood and beyond over the next two decades. In 2013, for example, 48-year-old Jon Cryer revealed on Conan that he only had “four or five hairs” on his head and the rest was an “elaborate illusion.”

John Travolta is known to have employed a similar strategy. Clive Davis is known to have failed in doing so. Same for Carlos Boozer, who in 2002 played in a nationally televised game with what looked like an entire can of shoe polish smeared all over his dome. And Real Housewives of New Jersey star Joe Gorga left behind a trail of GLH-esque “black tar” after brawling with brother-in-law Joe Giudice in 2013.

Joe vs Joe – Extended Fight

Teresa Giudice (talking head): Everyone was covered in black shit.

Joe Giudice: What the fuck is all this black tar?

Joe Gorga (talking head): I take a little black hairspray and spray my hair with that. It makes it look a little thicker.

Popeil: I once sent some cans to a very famous sports announcer who shall remain nameless — I mean very famous. He was very cognizant of his bald spot, because every time he’d turn his head on TV, the bald spot was revealed. So he started using GLH. I happened to be going to a sporting event with a friend who was close with the announcer. He said, “Let’s call him up and see how he’s doing.” On the phone, he said, “Do you need any more of that GLH?” The response was, “No, I think I have enough of it.” Then there was a pause, and the guy’s wife got on the phone and said, “HAVE RON SEND SOME MORE OF THAT GLH!”

Despite its obvious drawbacks, GLH proved to be a big financial success. In a 2015 Reddit AMA, Popeil was asked how much GLH he’d actually sold. Enough to cover millions of Chia Pets!” he responded. Ultimately, GLH’s achievement is probably best evidenced by the fact that you can still buy it on Amazon, though the most recent review indicates it might not have aged so well.

Jack, One-Star Amazon Reviewer: Horrible. It sucks. It doesn’t stick. It makes a huge, hard to get rid of stain in the shower/bathtub. Poor Quality. Do not waste your money on this product.

PART 2: THE POWDER

While GLH and similar products are, in fact, powders in an aerosol can, when it comes down to it, they’re essentially spray paint. That’s fine if you’re looking to camouflage a bald spot as you would an AR-15, but not if you’re looking for volume and texture — two fleeting, wistful items on the balding man’s bucket list.

And so, another solution gained traction at the end of the millennium: hair-building electrostatically charged fibers. Products like Toppik, Caboki, Nanogen and Viviscal all have similar, salt-and-pepper-shaker packaging, and they function pretty much the same way: when sprinkled over thinning areas of hair, tiny fibers cling to existing hair and bind to individual shafts, making each strand of hair appear thicker. The fibers come in multiple colors and can be custom-blended to create whichever shade is desired. There are dozens of products like this on the market. Toppik, invented by Mark Kress, 54, was the first — and actually preceded GLH by more than a decade.

Kress: I examined the marketplace in 1982, and there was no upscale product available for men or women to cosmetically improve their thinning hair. Over the years, people had used mascara, unnatural-looking toupees and even shoe polish on their heads, all of which looked terrible or didn’t work at all. Through a lot of research, I learned that hair is made of virtually 100 percent keratin. One fiber that’s 100 percent keratin is wool, and certain kinds of wool very much conform to characteristics of human hair. We found sources for this wool and developed it into colors that would blend with anybody’s hair and processes to make it dispense easily. Then we tested to make sure it would be safe and hygienic and could take color as well.

Kathy Chen, Caboki product manager: The reason why our product is so much better than GLH is it builds texture and gives dimension to the hair. Whereas if you’re using a spray-on paint, you’re just going to get a colored scalp; you won’t get any volume.

Kress: It strained my confidence when I’d tell friends what I was involved with and they’d make Chia Pet jokes. In later years, they’d say, “Is that the Ron Popeil spray stuff?” As if it was totally ridiculous. But I slowly built the company through direct response, primarily print advertising in magazines and newspapers. The response to the print advertising was okay. What was really surprising was how many customers kept reordering and reordering and reordering. I realized if I could come close to breaking even on my advertising, I could make a great deal of money because the average customer would stay with me.

In the meantime, I connected with this doctor who introduced me to Joan Rivers, and she and I wound up starting a business together, Joan Rivers Jewelry on QVC, which to date has rung up billions of dollars in sales. This initially sidetracked me from Toppik, but it did give me enough liquidity — we were selling $1 million an hour of jewelry — to invest in Toppik and create other products like shampoos, conditioners, eyebrow products, root lifts and other things that extended the brand and profitability of the business. We also came out with a lot more advertising, promotion and PR and got greater distribution outside of direct response as well. We stayed away from the mass marketers but we developed a big international business. Today, Toppik is still sold in almost every country in the world.

Glen Prytula, President of DermMatch, a Toppik and Caboki competitor: There have got to be 40 different brands of the hair-fiber salt-and-pepper sprinkle products now. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you the difference. It’s cheap. You cannot brush or comb your hair. Don’t even think about swimming. You couldn’t put it on the side or back of your head if you have alopecia areata, scarring or if you have a bald head and you’re trying to do that five o’clock shadow look. There’s very little flexibility on the application.

Reviews of topical hair fibers run the gamut but more or less agree with Prytula — some say they work, some say there are so many out there that finding the right one can be a journey unto itself, and others claim they just plain suck.

C. Lee, One-Star Amazon Reviewer: Not good. The concept of the hair fiber is good but this particular brand Toppik is very powdery. It is nothing like hair fiber. You’ll look as if you sprinkled some coloring onto your scalp. Plus it gave me an intense headache. Had to return right away.

Agewithakay, Redditor: Just tried Toppik…amazing. This thing is like magic! Only had to put a dab or two on my crown and the bald spot disappeared. A little sprinkle up top and you can hardly see my scalp.

Nanners, Two-Star Amazon Reviewer: Caboki NOT for frontal thinning. I won’t be ordering more. For one thing, the product gets EVERYWHERE. You’re basically sprinkling a powder on your head, and by the time you’re done, your entire counter and floor are dusted black. I do think this product CAN help someone who has thinning in the back or top of their head. But my hair is thinning in front.

As for Kress, like Popeil, he recently got out of the balding business.

Kress: Earlier this year, I sold Toppik to Church & Dwight, the owner of Arm & Hammer, Trojan and a lot of other big brands. Ever since, I’ve been traveling extensively — South of France, Mykonos, Ibiza; I’ve been out on the water quite a bit. People warned me that retirement was going to be deadly and boring, but my days have been happy and full. This is what you work toward when you start a business — create products that do what they actually say they’re gonna do, help people and ultimately conclude it with a nice exit for a good price.

PART 3: THE TATTOO

Finally, there’s the nuclear option: tattooing hair onto your scalp with a procedure called scalp micropigmentation (SMP), which gives the appearance of a full (albeit completely shaven) head of hair. HIS Hair Clinic co-founder Ranbir Rai-Watson was the first to perform SMP after her husband, Paul, died from cancer in 2002.

Rai-Watson: Following Paul’s death, his brother Ian was affected by alopecia areata from all the stress and worry. Ian wondered if there was a way to create stubble on his head like he had on his face so it would help camouflage and disguise the patches of his hair loss. I purchased the finest pen I could get and drew hair-like strokes and dots with a pointillism pattern to see how it could look. We both liked it and realized we could create a realistic illusion of the stubble/shaven look we wanted. We went to Australia to learn how to expertly perform permanent makeup. Over two years of trials, we eventually developed our own SMP technique and created the look permanently for Ian.

Lucy, client services coordinator at HIS Hair Clinic: We just create an illusion of hair.

Sean James, celebrity hairstylist and men’s groomer: SMP looks fantastic the first month, and a true artist can make a great shadow on the top of the head. The cons are that it turns blue after a period and ends up looking like a faded tattoo after about a month.

Lucy: If you were to look at it under a microscope, you’d see the different layers of skin have different properties. We’re depositing small, circular shapes placed in the epidermal layer. Generally, tattoos go much deeper, usually five layers into the skin. We’re going into the second layer of skin, which has a lot more structure to it. When we put the ink molecule there, it’s held in place by the other molecules in the skin and allows our deposit to remain in the shape we put it in. For example, right now, I’m looking at a tattoo I have on my wrist that’s a few years old. Because it’s so far in, the edges of the tattoo have bled out slightly, and in another 10 years, it may have lost its original shape. By going only a few layers in, we’re allowing the SMP to keep its shape.

Secondly, the ink we use is very different. Many tattoo inks will be formed with inks that have different metallic properties or are derived from different colors — like printer ink mixing cyan, magenta and yellow together to create a black color. Whereas our ink is a pure, organic ink derived from a black pigment. That means while some tattoos may turn a different color over the years, our ink is specifically adapted for our treatment and can only be black. Depending on the shade we’re doing — we’ll often use a different shade of gray to match skin colors and hair colors — the only thing that can happen to it is it can get lighter. It would never go blue or green. Unfortunately, this is a common complaint of non-HIS treatments and is usually the result of inexperienced or rogue providers using the wrong pigments and materials that are completely inappropriate for SMP.

Rai-Watson: The most unexpected part of creating HIS Hair has been how unscrupulous people have jumped on the SMP bandwagon and begun offering SMP with no knowledge or no skill set to perform it. People have stolen our photos, used our trademarked SMP technique without our permission and caused horrendous harm to unfortunate individuals by passing themselves off as experts.

Newbie, HIS Hair Forum: About three months ago, I came across SMP and thought it was the perfect option for me, someone who likes the buzzed look and wanted to find a good balance between cost and benefit. I was put at ease by the practitioner. He is a true professional and honestly loves what he does. It started with me drawing what I thought a good hairline would be. He perfected it and really, that was it. The pain from the needle really isn’t bad. As others have said, some areas of the head are worse than others.

Most people have said, “What’s different about you?” One person who sees me every day said, “Did you shave your head?” It’s really an odd experience because they know something is different but they can’t tell you what. My favorite was, “Did you get your teeth whitened?” and “Are you wearing color contacts?” Here are some photos. A note… they don’t do it justice. It’s hard to photograph. I’ll just say it looks good in a mirror and I’m happy with it.

Before and after the SMP procedure

Josh 2.0, HIS Hair Forum: The process took about two and a half hours. Was it painful? At times it was, but most of the time it wasn’t, and when it was painful, it was fleeting. When he finished I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I would see myself with hair again.

Newbie, HIS Hair Forum: Here are some new pics. This is after four days of not shaving just to show you how good it still looks.

Glen Prytula, President of DermMatch, a Toppik and Caboki competitor: I’m actually having my scalp pigmentation removed. It was called “permanent makeup” when I got it 30 years ago. Now I’m in the process of having it removed with laser tattoo removal. It might be a good idea to do SMP if your hair color never changes throughout your lifetime or your hair loss never changes throughout your lifetime, both of which aren’t likely to happen. That’s my experience, but I don’t mean to pooh-pooh it.

Rai-Watson: We developed SMP to help Ian and then set up HIS Hair Clinic to help other people like Ian. That’s been the most rewarding part: Changing people’s lives for the better by helping them overcome their personal issues with hair loss and helping them regain their confidence. We remain passionate about that mission as well as remaining the best SMP company in the world.

THE FUTURE

What does the next millennium have in store for the balding man? Will coloring the scalp to disguise hair loss ever be anything more than a punchline?

Given the fact that Toppik remains the industry-leading hair fiber, despite being essentially the same salt shaker Mark Kress dreamed up during the Reagan administration, if the white knight of hair loss does ride in, he’ll likely be on a different horse. For instance, transplants have come a long way from the hair plugs that nearly (mercifully?) ended Joe Buck’s broadcasting career. Similarly, Follicular Unit Extraction is a minimally invasive technique in which robot-assisted microsurgery devices remove individual hairs from the back of a man’s head and transplant them to thinning areas. Granted, he wouldn’t be actually increasing the overall number of hairs on his head — just shuffling the deck a bit. And at a cost of $20,000 to $50,000, it isn’t cheap—nor is it permanent. That said, it seems to be working for Elon Musk.

As with so many other recalcitrant medical issues, there’s great promise in stem cells. The hypothesis is that hair follicles become dormant in balding areas and stem cells, in essence, will wake them up. Early returns are encouraging. And L’Oreal is hopeful about its method of 3D printing hair follicles capable of sprouting new hair using a “bio-ink” created with natural cells. And a counterintuitive strategy to regrow hairs—developed by Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California—involves ripping them out first. Chuong successfully demonstrated last year that plucking 200 hairs in a specific pattern induced 1,200 replacement hairs to grow in a mouse.

So the good news is that balding mice can finally put down the Toppik sprinkles, HIS Hair needles and cans of GLH.

The rest of us will have to wait.