Chemotherapy and hair loss: How to make the best of it

Your hair loss generally can't be prevented or controlled, but it can be managed. Take the following steps throughout your treatment to minimize the frustration and anxiety associated with hair loss.

Before treatment

  • Be gentle to your hair. Get in the habit of being kind to your hair. Don't bleach, color or perm your hair — this can weaken it. Air-dry your hair as much as possible and avoid heating devices such as curling irons and hot rollers. Strengthening your hair now might make it more likely to stay in your head a little longer during treatment.
  • Consider cutting your hair. Short hair tends to look fuller than long hair. So as your hair falls out, it won't be as noticeable if you have short hair. Also, if you have long hair, going short might help you make a better transition to total hair loss.
  • Plan for a head covering. Now is the time to start thinking about wigs, scarves or other head coverings. Whether you choose to wear a head covering to conceal your hair loss is up to you. But it's easier to plan for it now rather than later. Ask your doctor to write a prescription for a wig, the cost of which may be covered by your health insurance.

During treatment

  • Baby your remaining hair. Continue your gentle hair strategies throughout your chemotherapy treatment. Use a soft brush. Wash your hair only as often as necessary. Consider using a gentle shampoo.
  • Consider shaving your head. Some people report that their scalps feel itchy, sensitive and irritated during their treatment and while their hair is falling out. Shaving your head can reduce the irritation and save the embarrassment of shedding. Some men shave their heads because they feel it looks better than the patchy hair loss they might be experiencing.
  • Protect your scalp. If your head is going to be exposed to the sun or to cold air, protect it with sunscreen or a head covering. Your scalp may be sensitive as you go through treatment, so extreme cold or sunshine can easily irritate it. Having no hair or having less hair can make you feel cold, so a head covering may make you more comfortable.

After treatment

  • Continue gentle hair care. Your new hair growth will be especially fragile and vulnerable to the damage caused by styling products and heating devices. Hold off on coloring or bleaching your new hair until it grows stronger. Processing could damage your new hair and irritate your sensitive scalp.
  • Be patient. It's likely that your hair will come back slowly and that it might not look normal right away. But growth takes time, and it also takes time to repair the damage caused by your cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy and hair loss: Cover your head

Covering your head as your hair falls out is a purely personal decision. For many women hair is associated with femininity and health, so they choose to maintain that look by wearing a wig. Others choose hats and scarves. Still others choose not to cover their heads at all.

Ask your doctor or a hospital social worker about resources in your area to help you find the best head covering for you. Look Good ... Feel Better is a free program that provides hair and beauty makeovers and tips to women with cancer. These classes are offered throughout the United States and in several other countries. Many classes are offered through local chapters of the American Cancer Society. Look Good...Feel Better also offers classes for teens with cancer, as well as a website especially for men.

Radiation therapy also can cause hair loss

Radiation therapy also attacks quickly growing cells in your body, but unlike chemotherapy, it affects only the specific area where treatment is concentrated. If you have radiation to your head, you'll likely lose the hair on your head.

Your hair usually begins growing back after your treatments end. But whether it grows back to its original thickness and fullness depends on your treatment. Different types of radiation and different doses will have different effects on your hair. Higher doses of radiation can cause permanent hair loss. Talk to your doctor about what dose you'll be receiving so that you'll know what to expect.

Radiation therapy also affects your skin. The treatment area is likely to be red and may look sunburned or tanned. If your radiation treatment is to your head, it's a good idea to cover your head with a protective hat or scarf because your skin will be sensitive to cold and sunlight. Wigs and other hairpieces might irritate your scalp.

Mar. 06, 2012 See more In-depth