Minoxidil, a potent vasodilator, stimulates the growth of terminal hair from vellus or miniaturized follicles in balding scalp. To study minoxidil's action on isolated follicles we developed and validated an organ culture system using mouse whisker follicles. Control follicles cultured without minoxidil showed macroscopic changes including kinking of the hair shafts and bending of the follicles. Necrosis was evident in the differentiating epithelial elements forming the cuticle, cortex, and inner root sheath. These abnormalities were eliminated or greatly reduced in minoxidil-treated follicles. The morphology of these follicles was consistent with the production of new hair during culture. Direct measurement demonstrated that minoxidil-treated follicles grew significantly longer than control follicles during the 3-d culture. Minoxidil increased the incorporation of radiolabeled cysteine and glycine in follicles compared with control treatment. Doses of minoxidil up to 1 mM caused increased cysteine incorporation, while higher doses were inhibitory. Experiments with labeled thymidine indicated that minoxidil induced proliferation of hair epithelial cells near the base of the follicle. Autoradiography also showed that cysteine accumulated in the keratogenous zone above the dermal papilla. These studies demonstrate that organ cultured follicles are suitable for determining minoxidil's mechanism of action and may be useful for studying other aspects of hair biology. The results also show that minoxidil's effect on hair follicles is direct. This suggests that minoxidil's action in vivo includes more than just increasing blood flow to hair follicles.