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Stephen Miller
Christina Animashaun/Vox

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How spray-on hair does (and doesn’t) work

In case Stephen Miller has you wondering.

On Sunday, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller appeared on Face the Nation. His contentious interview included the assertion that President Donald Trump was quite willing to shut down the government if he didn’t receive funding from Congress for a border wall. But Miller’s immigration stance wasn’t the only thing with a hard line in that TV appearance:

The consensus was that Miller was using “spray-on hair” and possibly that his hairdresser was part of the resistance, given the product’s unsubtle results on his balding head.

The 33-year-old Miller is not alone in his balding, or in his attempts to cover it up. According to the American Hair Loss Association, about two-thirds of men experience some hair loss by age 35; that number increases as they get older. Women also frequently experience hair loss due to hormonal changes and other causes. The stigma around solutions to this common problem is huge, and modern hair replenishment technology has been the butt of jokes for decades.

“Spray-on hair” is a misnomer because the modern iteration is not technically a spray at all — the most commonly used hair fill-in product today is fiber powder that you sprinkle on your head to thicken existing hair and add more density. But this temporary hair loss solution (used by makeup artists and regular consumers alike!) is still called spray-on hair colloquially thanks to a brand called GLH, which is short for Good Looking Hair.

GLH, owned by Ronco, brought the concept into the public consciousness with its ubiquitous infomercials in the 1990s, which featured the company’s founder Ron Popeil pulling balding men out of an audience and spraying their heads. Before the days of high-definition TV, the product could look surprisingly decent on screen, but in real life, it looked like spray paint mixed with the hairy dust that comes out of an electric razor head when you empty it. In 2010, Time deemed “hair in a can” one of the worst inventions of all time.

You can still find cans of GLH for sale on Amazon. According to the listing, the ingredients include a propellant, alcohol, iron oxides, talc, and fumed silica. As Popeil (who also sold the Chop-o-Matic), explained to Mel Magazine, “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.”

The “powder,” the talc component in GLH, sticks to whatever is left of the user’s hair, which can include small follicles still protruding from the scalp. The iron oxides provide the color and the talc provides the texture, according to a 2017 Inverse article that analyzed the ingredients. Fumed silica is used in paint to help it spread evenly.

There are now dozens of brands out there in the hair-filling category, with names like Boldify, Crown, Samson, and Miracle Hair. None are meant to stimulate hair growth; all are temporary cosmetic fixes that wash out. They all work more or less the same way, but they’re different from GLH. There is no liquid at all, and they rely on colored keratin fibers instead of talc to add volume and the appearance that hair is present. The market leader, and a pioneer in the space, is Toppik.

Toppik emerged several years before GLH, but with much less fanfare. Toppik’s parent company, Spencer Forrest (now owned by Church and Dwight, the company that owns Arm & Hammer and Nair), was founded by Mark Kress. Kress told C. Brian Smith at Mel that he entered the marketplace with Toppik in 1982.

Later, he’d face ridicule by association. “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,” he said.

Toppik fiber powders.
Toppik

Hair is composed of the protein keratin. Toppik’s main ingredient is also keratin, which it claims is derived from “natural” wool sources. According to a 2015 company blog post: “While other companies use synthetic or low-grade keratin hair fibers made from fish bones, nails, or hooves, Toppik uses keratin hair fibers made from only the highest quality. This means using premium keratin hair fibers from a natural wool source.” (Toppik did not respond to requests for clarification and more information about its products as of publication time.)

Toppik’s colored keratin fibers take advantage of a natural static charge, which causes them to stick to each other and to adhere to existing hair follicles. The company claims its fibers stay put through rain, wind, and sweat, which makes sense since keratin is an inert substance, unlike the talc in GLH, which can turn into a gloppy mess when wet.

To apply Toppik and its similar competitor products, you just sprinkle the powder onto whatever area you want, like parmesan cheese onto pizza, and then apply a coat of hairspray afterward to keep it in place. You can also use a separately sold puffing spray applicator that helps the user concentrate the fibers onto a smaller specific area, like a hair part.

It’s a perfectly mainstream product and no longer relegated to the fringes of the marketplace like GLH was. You can buy it on Amazon and at Bed Bath & Beyond, Ulta, Sally Beauty, and your local drugstore. At one point, it was even at Sephora. It ranges in price from $7.95 for a travel size to $79.95 for the “giant” size.

Whether it looks natural really depends on how you use it. The company and reviewers recommend mixing different colors, because human hair is rarely just one flat tone. And it definitely looks more natural on hair that is thinning rather than hair with large bald expanses. As one Amazon reviewer put it: “The fact is, this stuff works under certain circumstances. Those circumstances are that you still have some hair. ... Don’t think this stuff will make you look like you did when you were 18 years old. ... Use it sparingly to avoid detection.”

As another reviewer put it:

I suppose for very specific types and (tiny) degrees of hair loss/thinning, this might, MIGHT, be useful for certain circumstances. Medium to low resolution (or somewhat distant) photographs and videos, for example. But if your thinking this is going to make you look like you have a full head of thick hair to someone you’re having a face-to-face conversation with, think again. Up close, it looks exactly like what it is: colored dust in your hair and on your scalp. It does cover fine hairs and make them look thicker …

That’s good advice for people considering using the product in TV appearances. Which brings us back to Miller. Here’s a report from New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers:

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