Losing or thinning hair on the body is one of the common and visible side effects of some cancer treatments. Although hair loss is unlikely to be permanent, it’s still a big change and can be a difficult one to get used to. 

Not all treatments will cause hair loss. Sometimes, it may be possible to keep your hair, but it’s still likely you may experience some thinning. 

No matter if you’re expecting or going through hair thinning or hair loss, there are things you can do to help you feel better. There have been huge advances in options to manage hair thinning and loss during cancer treatment. In this article we’ll cover:

  • What’s the difference between hair loss and thinning?
  • What treatments cause hair thinning and what can be done to help?
  • What treatments cause hair loss and what can be done to help?

What’s the difference between hair loss and thinning?

Depending on what kind of treatment you have, side effects can include:

  • Mild thinning of your hair
  • Dry, brittle hair that seems thinner or duller in appearance
  • Patches of hair loss on your head or other areas of your body
  • Complete hair loss including eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair 

Hair thinning

Hair thinning can be the result of several changes. Hair may shed in patches, or you may just notice more hair is shedding than usual when you brush your hair. You could also find that hair strands become drier and more brittle, giving the appearance of thinner, less full hair. 

Hair loss

Hair loss (alopecia) happens is when cells within hair follicles on the body are damaged or destroyed during some types of chemotherapy. This results in hair including eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair falling out. As the hair follicles die, this can be uncomfortable or sometimes painful. 

This is one of the reasons many people choose to shave their heads before beginning certain cancer treatments if they’ve been advised it is likely to result in hair loss. Although this can be one of the most visible symptoms of cancer treatment to get used to, hair loss is rarely permanent. There are also lots of things you can do to look after your scalp and hair when it does start to grow back. 

What treatments cause hair thinning?

Chemotherapy doesn’t always cause hair loss, sometimes people may find they only get slight thinning or no hair loss at all. Certain hormone therapies and targeted cancer drugs can also cause hair thinning.

Hair thinning happens gradually and - if it happens at all - could begin as soon as treatment begins, or several weeks afterwards. If you’re having hormone therapies, any hair loss may happen within the first year of starting treatment. 

Although your hair should grow back after treatment, you may find it feels drier, more brittle or lacks the lustre it had before. 

Hair thinning can be affected by different factors such as:

  • The type of drug or drugs you are taking
  • The dose 
  • The route (by mouth, injection or a drip)
  • How sensitive you are to the drug
  • Any treatment you’ve had in the past

What can be done to help?

If your hair is thinning, feeling dry and lacking its usual lustre or shine there are a few things you can do to give it a helping hand including:

Choosing the right hair products

Often, switching up the products you use on your hair can make a huge difference in how your hair and scalp is looking and feeling. 

Many shampoos often use harsh detergents that can strip the hair of its natural oils. As a result, hair can become dry and brittle towards the ends and oily and/or flaky at the scalp. Using products with gentle, natural ingredients helps to clean hair without stripping it. This can help your hair feel healthier, softer, shinier and fuller.

These great hair shampoos and conditioners have been made especially for people having treatment for cancer. Free from sulphates, parabens and other drying or irritating ingredients they’re designed to gently cleanse without drying out. 

Washing hair less often

Sometimes washing hair too often can make it feel dry, and encourage roots to produce more oil. If you can’t bear to cut down the frequency you wash your hair, try washing with just conditioner every other time you wash. This is called co-washing. If you massage in the conditioner and rinse well, it should be able to significantly clean your hair, allowing it to feel fresh and soft without the need to shampoo. 

Allowing hair to dry naturally

If you can, allow your hair to dry naturally wherever possible. Less heat styling means less stress on your hair so if you can, allow your hair to dry naturally wherever possible. If you do use heat stylers, make sure to use a heat-protective product on the lengths of your hair.

Scalp massage

Massaging your scalp can encourage blood flow to the area and could be good for your hair follicles. Using treatments designed specifically for the scalp can enhance the experience and results! Two to try:

What treatments cause hair loss?

Although not all chemotherapy causes hair loss, it’s the type of cancer treatment that’s mostly associated with hair loss. This is because chemo attacks the most rapidly dividing calls in the body - such as cancer cells - in order to destroy them. Unfortunately, this means it can also kill the cells in hair follicles as these cells also divide rapidly.

Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely to cause hair loss than others. The list of drugs here is ordered by how likely they are to cause hair loss. 

Hair loss can depend on several different factors such as:

  • The type of drug or drugs you are taking
  • The dose 
  • The route (by mouth, injection or a drip)
  • How sensitive you are to the drug
  • Any treatment you’ve had in the past

What can be done to help?

To find out more about hair loss during cancer treatment, check out the Live Better With Guide Cancer and Hair Loss here.