Androgens are major regulators of human hair growth, but their effects vary: many follicles are stimulated by androgens, e.g., beard; some remain unaffected, e.g., eyelashes; whereas scalp follicles undergo regression and balding in genetically disposed individuals. Because the dermal papilla controls many aspects of the hair follicle, androgens may act via the dermal papilla, affecting the other follicular components indirectly. In this hypothesis androgens would alter dermal papilla cell production of regulatory substances, e.g., growth factors and/or extracellular matrix components. To test this theory the mechanism of androgen action has been compared in primary lines of dermal papilla cells cultured from androgen-dependent follicles and relatively androgen-independent non-balding scalp. Androgen receptor levels were assayed by saturation analysis (9-10 points; 0.05-10 nmol/l) using the synthetic androgen [3H]-mibolerone and specificity was confirmed by competition studies. Androgen metabolism was investigated both intracellularly and in the media after a 2-h incubation with 5 nM [3H]-testosterone. Carrier and [14C] steroids were added to the extracts before separation by thin-layer chromatography; steroid identity was confirmed by recrystallization. Dermal papilla cells from androgen-dependent follicles contained higher levels of specific, high-affinity, low-capacity androgen receptors than non-balding scalp cells. Testosterone metabolism also varied with beard, public and scalp cells containing testosterone and androstenedione intracellularly, but only beard cells producing 5 alpha-dihydrotestosterone, in line with the scanty beard growth found in 5 alpha-reductase deficiency. Elsewhere we have shown that cultured dermal papilla cells produce extracellular matrix components and mitogenic factors. These results all concur with our original hypothesis and suggest that further studies of such cells may elucidate the paradoxical effects of androgens on human hair follicles.