The biggest scam in the history of medicine is still here and it’s costing everyone more than $150 million a year – but how can we stop it?

From its inception, the so-called “scam” of prescription shampoo has been an enormous money-making opportunity.

A study published in the Lancet in 2013 estimated that the cost of shampoo to the average consumer in the US was $1,854 per bottle, and in China it was $10.4 billion.

In 2015, the Australian Federal Government estimated that around 1.6 million Australians were being treated for the illness, and more than 40 per cent of those were aged over 65.

But in the year since the Lancet paper, a series of studies have revealed the scam has been going on for far longer, costing the healthcare system in the United States over $150 billion, according to a new study by the National Science Foundation. 

In the first study, published in Nature Communications in 2016, researchers from the National Institutes of Health and University of California, San Diego analysed data on a database of US$1 billion in annual prescriptions from 2015 to 2025.

They found that the annual cost of prescription hair care products was $150,000 per patient, and that more than 80 per cent were imported from China, which accounted for a quarter of the total amount spent.

“The most commonly prescribed shampoo in the USA was an anti-bacterial shampoo called Soothe,” the authors wrote.

“These shampooes were not sold in the pharmacy, but were sold in supermarkets and drug stores.”

So how could the US healthcare system be paying $1.8 billion per year for a product that was supposedly a “cure for a cold”?

The authors looked at how shampoo costs in different US states, and they found that for every $100 of shampoo imported into the US, the price increased by about $15.

The cost of the products varied across states and was driven by different manufacturing processes, and a higher percentage of shampoo was imported from Australia.

The authors also found that shampoo prices were higher in the states where the costs of shampoo were higher, such as California and the US Virgin Islands. 

For example, in the Virgin Islands, the average cost of a shampoo was $2.25, but in California it was about $4.95, a difference of about $60.

In the states with the highest costs, such the Virgin Island of the US and Hawaii, the costs for shampoo were lower, at around $2 per bottle.

While the authors did not calculate the exact amount of shampoo consumed in the various states, they concluded that the total cost to the healthcare systems in the affected states was more than that.

“The amount of prescription-level shampoo in each state was significantly higher than the total annual cost, and was higher for older adults and those with chronic health conditions than for younger adults,” the study found.

It concluded that shampoo was “often an expensive and inefficient source of health care”. 

In its report, the National Academy of Sciences said it was not clear why the prices of the shampoo varied so widely. 

“There is a significant degree of heterogeneity in the costs that shampoo imposes on the healthcare delivery system,” it said.

“In addition, the cost estimates for each state are uncertain.

However, the majority of the estimates for shampoo cost in the study are consistent with the cost reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

The cost of these shampoo products can be attributed to a variety of factors including the cost per unit, cost of labor, cost per use, and quality and safety of ingredients.

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[It] is essential to continue to research and develop more effective, cost-effective and innovative solutions to address this challenge,” it added.

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