Why cancer causes hair loss – and practical tips for making life better
Losing hair on your head, face and body is a common side effect of cancer treatment, especially chemotherapy.
This guide explains what you should to expect if you are going to have treatment that might cause hair loss. It also gives practical tips shared by members of the Live Better With cancer community – real people who have experienced hair loss and found ways to live better.
And remember: except in very rare cases, hair does grow back after the treatment is finished.
In this guide:
What causes hair loss? | Preparing for hair loss | Reducing hair loss with a cooling cap | Looking after your hair | Coping with itchy skin | Covering your head | Improving your eyebrows | When your hair grows back
What causes hair loss?
Chemotherapy often causes hair thinning and hair loss. Chemotherapy attacks the cells in the body that divide the most rapidly – that’s how it destroys cancer cells. Unfortunately that means it also destroys hair follicles, because these hair-making cells also divide very rapidly.
Chemotherapy doesn’t always cause hair loss. Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely to cause it than others. You can see lists of drugs in order of how likely they are to cause hair loss here.
You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if your drugs are likely to make you lose your hair.
Radiotherapy, also known as radiation therapy, can mean that you lose hair in the area being treated, such as your scalp or face. You may lose hair on the opposite side of the area being treated, where the radiotherapy beam passes through the ‘exit site’.
Your hair will usually grow back a few months after the treatment has finished. However, sometimes the new hair can be a little different, perhaps thinner or curlier. Read our full guide to radiotherapy and living better with its side effects here.
Preparing for hair loss
Your doctor or nurse will be able to tell you if your cancer treatment is likely to cause your hair to fall out. In any case, it is best to be ready for hair loss, so that if it does happen you are not taken by surprise.
Here are some things you can do before your treatment starts, to prepare for losing your hair:
- Talk about it. Talk to family and friends about the possibility of losing your hair. They may be able to support you and offer suggestions for coping. In the Live Better With online community people who have been through your situation will be able to share their stories and tips.
- Wear your hair shorter. If hair loss is likely, you may like to start wearing your hair shorter. You could plan several trips to a hairdresser to cut your hair shorter in gradual stages. This will make the change much less of a shock.
- Buy wigs or headwear before treatment starts. If you wish to wear a wig during chemo treatment, it will be easier to match it to your hair style and colour if you buy it while you still have your hair. You could also choose hats, headscarves and other head coverings before treatment, so you don’t have any last-minute worries about finding something you like. You can find out more about wig suppliers and fitting here.
- Plan for eyebrow and eyelash loss. Losing your eyebrows and lashes can be difficult as it changes your appearance. Why not take a look at pencils, stencils and gels before treatment, so you can find what works best for you?
Reducing hair loss with a cooling cap
Wearing a special cooling cap (also referred to as a hypothermia cap or cold cap) during a chemotherapy treatment session can reduce the amount of hair you lose. The cap ‘freezes’ your scalp, which means that less of the chemo drugs reaches your hair follicles.
The Live Better With community recommends the Elasto-Gel Cooling Cap.
“I have been on chemo for 11 months and have successfully kept my hair. My body hair and eyebrows are gone. The key is getting the caps cool the night before with dry ice. I start scalp cooling about 30-45 minutes before infusion, during infusion and about 3 hours or more after. I have Stage IV metastatic breast cancer and this allows me to have a little bit of normal in my life. Research this and try it if you are a candidate.” – Ann, Live Better With community member.
Scalp cooling is not recommended for everyone, so it’s important that you talk to your doctor about whether it is suitable for you before you buy a cooling cap.
Looking after your hair during treatment
There are plenty of things you can do to look after your hair in the period that you’re having cancer treatment. Here are tips from the Live Better With community:
- Use gentle shampoo. Wash your hair at least every two days, but use gentle, organic, natural shampoos (that are free from chemicals, perfumes, sulphates and parabens).
- Be gentle with your hair. When drying your hair don’t rub hard with a towel. Use wide brushes and combs instead of fine ones. Be careful not to overheat your hair with hair dryers and electric hair straighteners or rollers. Avoid colouring or perming your hair. And don’t tie your hair too tightly in hairbands.
- Wear a sleep hat at night. Wearing a soft cap at night will make you more comfortable. It can also collect any hairs that fall out while you sleep. We recommend a cotton indoor sleep hat.
“The sleep hat doesn’t suit me at all but hey! I only wear it at night, it’s comfortable and not hot, and does a great job of keeping fallen-out hair off the pillow. I suspect it will also be useful when I have no more hair and may feel a bit cold at night.” Live Better With Community member Veronica Zundel
Coping with itchy and irritated skin
The skin on your scalp and other areas of hair loss can become itchy and irritated. Here are some tips to help cope:
- Use an exfoliating sponge. This helps to gently massage your scalp and remove dead skin.
- Use unperfumed moisturiser on skin where you have lost hair.
- Protect your head from the sun and also from the cold. (See tips on head coverings below.)
- Use pillows with natural fibres.
- Spray your head with a scalp spritz. A spray can help cool and soothe your scalp, especially on hot days. And an anti-bacterial scalp spray can help treat your scalp skin, which is prone to breakouts when you have lost your hair.
“My scalp was always very irritated during treatment. And when the short hair grew back it was worse. I found this scalp spritz and it has done wonders for me.” Live Better With Community member
Covering your head
Good headwear can protect your scalp and also help with your appearance. Many head coverings are very stylish, and there are plenty of options for colours and materials.
Some people like to wear a wig – perhaps one that looks as close as possible to their natural hair. If you think a wig is right for you, it’s a good idea to get it before you have your treatment. That will make it easier to match your style and colour.
Here are other popular headwear options:
- Scarves. These come in many materials and colours. The most popular are soft cotton jersey or silk.
- Turbans. These usually require no tying – they fit on like a hat and often have a slot to allow you to thread in a scarf of your own, so you can personalize the edge of the turban with your own style
- Beanies. These help keep your head warm indoors or outdoors. Beanies are often a good choice for men with chemo hair loss.
- Bandanas. These are an easy and stylish way to cover your head, for both sexes.
A top Live Better With tip is to try a hat (or wig liner) made from bamboo. Bamboo is highly breathable in hot weather but keeps you warm when the weather turns chilly. It is three times more absorbent than cotton which helps with sweating. Bamboo also has antibacterial properties. See bamboo hats here.
“Love these bamboo hats and have 5 now and whenever I wear them I get compliments about them. I usually find a scarf with one of the colours of the hat in it and wind it round the hat while I am wearing it twice finishing with a tiny knot at the top. I find when you are out this helps secure the hat on. Makes you feel good during a difficult time.” Linda Kinahan, Live Better With Community member
Improving your eyebrows
Losing your eyebrows can be upsetting as it changes your appearance. Here are some good options until your eyebrows grow back:
- Eyebrow stencils. These help to draw eyebrows in a realistic shape.
- Eyeliner pencil. Make sure you choose an organic pencil, as this will not irritate the skin.
“When I lost my hair I also lost my eyebrows and that really upset me. I bought a pack of brow stencils and an eyebrow pencil and drew them back. It looked quite ok and made me feel much better.” Live Better With Community member
- Eyebrow gel. New gels such as the WUNDERBROW eyebrow gel allow you to easily recreate natural looking brows that last longer.
“The eyebrow gel is a brilliant idea – this saves me loads of time loads of time in the morning when I am trying to look my best.” Live Better With Community member
- Eyebrow and eyelash serums. These can help condition, repair and restore eyebrows and eyelashes.
When your hair grows back
In all but very rare cases, hair grows back once the chemotherapy treatment is over. Here are some things you can do to help the process.
- Avoid rubbing or massaging your scalp. Some people think this makes hair re-grow more quickly, but in fact it can damage new growth.
- Try vitamin B7. Hair care products containing vitamin B7 have helped some people revitalize and thicken their hair. Some people also recommend taking vitamin B7 tablets. Find recommended products and supplements for hair thickening and growth here.
- Talk to your hairdresser. Some people who used to have long hair before chemo now find that short hair suits them. Talk to your hairdresser about finding a style that works for you. The organisation My New Hair has a salon finder for UK hairdressers who specialise in hair for cancer patients.
Finally, if you no longer need it you may wish to donate your wig. The charity Wig Bank cleans wigs and sells them at affordable prices.
Share your hair loss tips
Have you experienced hair loss during cancer treatment? What made life better for you? We’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.