As Amy Gibson sat on a New York City bus four years ago, she couldn't help but notice a teenage girl trying to cover up a large bald patch on the back of her neck. "It was like watching myself in the mirror," recalls Gibson, a former General Hospital star. "I thought, 'If only she knew she wasn't alone.'"

Soon after, Gibson, 46, decided to go public about her three-decade-long battle with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease affecting nearly 5 million Americans—half of them women—in which the body's immune system attacks the hair follicles. Although symptoms are usually mild (Princess Caroline of Monaco briefly suffered from alopecia in 1995), some, like Gibson, eventually go completely bald. It is for these women that, in 2002, she started a counseling business—and, this month, launches her Amy's Presence line of wigs (priced from $400-$1,500 and available in 200 salons nationwide), which includes a lightweight hairpiece, one that can be worn even while swimming. "They give women freedom to be active," she says, "and not feel like they have a rubber band around their head."

Gibson was only 13 when a hairstylist on the set of the now-defunct soap Love of Life noticed a peach-size bald area. "I was hysterical," recalls Gibson, who took cortisone injections for 18 years to try to stem her hair loss before going bald in 1988, just weeks before starting on GH. The producers were supportive and even allowed her to play a character with multiple personalities—using different hairpieces.

Still, Gibson remained secretive about her condition until spotting that girl on the bus. "When you lose your hair, you feel your dignity being stripped away," she says. "For your own self-esteem, it's important to still feel feminine and beautiful."