Alopecia. If you know what that means, chances are you're one of the 40 million Americans with permanent, visible hair loss. Baldness.

A lot of those men and women don't seem to recognize--or want to admit--that the state of their pate generally is a matter of genes. Baldness usually is inherited.

This is a hair-loving nation, and Americans spend around $10 billion annually on their crowning glories, for care, treatment and for replacement of what has long since--strand by strand--disappeared down the shower drain. Millions, it seems, never give up hope that someday their heads will miraculously burst forth in new growth. The sales of nonprescription hair "remedies" are booming, even while the experts on baldness are shaking their heads over the quest, and the "Bald-is-Beautiful" chorus is growing.

Although Yale University's Dr. Ronald Savin declares straightaway, "There is no cure for baldness, with the exception of hair transplants, a surgical correction," he does concede one ray of hope in Minoxidil. He is one of a number of doctors in this country testing the drug that apparently causes hair growth. (See box.)

The over-the-counter products--shampoos, conditioners and the like--are, says Savin in no uncertain terms, "akin to the old Western snake oil man."

An expert panel recently reported to the Food and Drug Administration that while all drugs marketed as baldness treatments were safe, none was found "effective."

Nondrugs, or products claimed by manufacturers to be nondrugs and therefore not subject to FDA requirements, are being sold in treatment centers in a growing number of cities. Some claim to slow or halt hair loss and promote hair regrowth. Others say they unclog hair follicles with specially formulated shampoos and lotions, allowing long hairs trapped beneath the scalp surface to emerge.

Savin says it's possible that a person could do just as well (and save a lot of money) using soap and water or ordinary shampoo. "Generally, if one fusses with their hair, if they massage it a lot, wash it a lot, they tend to develop an increased amount of fine white hair, what we call vellus."

Although persons taking the special shampoo/lotion treatments may be encouraged by the growth of the vellus, "It never goes on," says Savin. "Resting hairs become stimulated to some extent, but they don't become 'terminal hairs,' the heavy black hairs which you and I recognize as real hair. To my knowledge, none of the over-the-counter products work."

However, they are hardly inexpensive: One "herbal cosmetic for baldness," marketed by John Arthur Enterprises, consists of a shampoo and lotion, at $45 a bottle each. A three-month treatment (12 bottles of each) runs around $1,000; six months, $1,860. Dissatisfied customers, they say, can get their last month's treatment refunded.

Pilo-Genic Research Associates says it rejects around 20 percent of its potential customers after a preliminary interview and examination. The firm says 13 percent of the clients they accept are not helped by their "mini-emulsion" cream/lotion-shampoo treatments for hair loss; 40-70 percent, they say, report successful hair regrowth. A three-month treatment would run around $310; six months, around $600. The firm offers no guarantees or refunds.

New Generation, another shampoo, was the subject of a recently concluded 16-week study by the University of California at San Diego. A spokesman for Dr. Howard Groveman, who directed the research, says the results still are being compiled and that a report will be available "within a couple of weeks."

Surgery such as hair transplants, skin flaps and scalp reductions usually runs from $1,000 to $5,000 and up. What the surgery basically does, explains Savin, "is move skin which contains the ability to grow hair to an area where the hair usually falls out."

Rather than fret about it, Savin, who is "a little bald," opts for the side of thinking proud.

"Baldness is not a disease," he stresses. "It's a male secondary sex characteristic. As a male species of the human race reaches sexual maturity, he develops a beard and also loses his hair to a various extent.

"Yours may just get a little thinner when you're 55 and I may get very bald when I'm 19. Baldness is just like the red comb on a rooster: It means he's the male king of the barnyard."