What is scalp cooling and how can it help you to avoid losing your hair during chemotherapy treatment?

If your cancer treatment programme includes chemotherapy, you will probably be feeling anxious about the possibility of losing all or some of your hair, including body hair.

In fact, not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss – your oncologist (a doctor who is a cancer specialist) or oncology nurse can tell you whether this is something that is likely to happen to you. If the chemotherapy regime that you are going to have is likely to cause hair loss, scalp cooling during your treatment could help. It can be an effective way of keeping all or more of your hair during chemotherapy.

” I used the cooling caps and even though my hair got thinner I still got to keep it which made me very happy. I used a shampoo and a conditioner that are specially designed for use along with a cold cap.” Live Better With community member.

In this guide:

Why does chemotherapy cause hair to fall out and how does this make us feel? | How does scalp cooling work? | Is scalp cooling right for me?  | What can I do about hair loss if scalp cooling isn’t right for me?

Browse our Hair loss range →


Why does chemotherapy cause hair to fall out and how does this make us feel?

Chemotherapy works by attacking cells that divide quickly, such as cancer cells.  But as well as destroying cancer cells, it also attacks healthy cells that divide quickly – like hair cells, which are some of the fastest-growing cells in our bodies. So, when chemotherapy drugs affect our hair cells, we start to lose our hair. (But, remember, not all chemotherapy drugs do this.)

Even if we don’t give much thought to it, our hair is very much associated with the way we look and the way other people see us – or the way we think they see us. It’s part of our identity. A fine, thick head of hair has always been associated with strength and power, which explains why Delilah cut off Samson’s hair! And, like it or not, it is also associated with beauty. We spend a good deal of money on keeping our hair looking good; in the UK alone, the hairdressing, barbering and beauty industry is worth over £7 billion a year!

Being diagnosed with cancer is stressful, even if you are trying your best to stay calm. So, the prospect of losing your hair through chemotherapy can make you feel even more distressed. But, if scalp cooling is right for you, it could help to reduce both your hair loss and your anxiety.

How does scalp cooling work?

Scalp cooling, otherwise known as the cold cap, was pioneered in England, and has been used in hospitals since 1997.

This is how it works:

  • When chemotherapy is given through a vein, it goes through your bloodstream to every part of your body, including your scalp and hair follicles (the cells and tissue around your hair roots).
  • If less of the chemotherapy goes to your scalp, it can reduce the amount that affects your hair follicles – meaning less or no hair loss.
  • Cold caps are tightly fitted caps that cover your head. They have a chinstrap to ensure that the cap’s surface fits as closely as possible over your scalp.
  • Cold caps contain something called glycerin-based hydrogel, which lowers the temperature of your head. A lower temperature means that less blood goes to your scalp and hair follicles and that can mean less hair loss.

Scalp cooling can be a blessing if you are worried about losing your hair. But it doesn’t suit everyone.

  • Scalp cooling does not work for all chemotherapy treatments, nor for all types of cancer. Ask your oncologist or oncology nurse whether scalp cooling could help you.
  • Scalp cooling takes time. You need to wear the cold cap before and after your chemotherapy sessions, which could add time to your appointment.
  • Scalp cooling has to be used on wet hair. Many hospitals don’t have hair dryers for patients, so ask if there is somewhere to plug in a hairdryer – and bring your own hairdryer with you; otherwise you may have to leave the hospital with wet hair.
  • Scalp cooling can be uncomfortable. If you find scalp cooling difficult, speak to your chemotherapy nurse about pain relief before you start.
  • Scalp cooling results differ from person to person. Some people still have mild hair loss and, in some cases, it does not work. It is always good to have a standby hat or scarf, in case you have some areas of thinning.
  • Scalp cooling should be done at every chemotherapy session. If you have already started your treatment, you probably won’t benefit from scalp cooling.

“I have been on chemo for 11 months and have successfully kept my hair. . . 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.

Find recommended Live Better With scalp cooling products here.

What else can I do about hair loss if scalp cooling isn’t right for me?

Even if scalp cooling won’t work for you, there are some comfortable – and stylish – ways of living better with hair loss during and after your chemotherapy treatment.

Find out more in the Live Better With Guide to Hair Loss.

Browse our Hair loss range →


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.

Find more Live Better With Guides to coping with cancer symptoms and side effects here.