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Coping with hair loss and thinning

Hair loss due to cancer treatment can be very distressing. There are some practical things you can do to help. 

Tips for possible complete hair loss

  • Ask about a wig before you start treatment, so you can match the colour and texture of your real hair.
  • If you are feeling adventurous, choose a wig for a whole new look – why not try the colour and style you've always wanted!
  • Think about having your hair gradually cut short before your treatment starts - this might help you get used to seeing yourself with less hair.
  • Some people shave their hair off completely to avoid the distress of seeing their hair fall out.
  • Wear a hair net at night so you won't wake up with hair all over your pillow, which can be upsetting.
  • Keep your head warm in cooler weather - some people wear a soft hat in bed.
  • Rub in oil or moisturiser if you scalp feels dry and itchy, try unperfumed products such as Epaderm, Hydromol or Doublebase.
  • Try a moisturising liquid (emollient) instead of soap if your scalp is dry, for example aqueous cream, Oilatum or Diprobase.
  • Protect your scalp by covering your head in the sun - your scalp is particularly sensitive to the sun.

Tips for hair loss or thinning

  • Use gentle hair products such as baby shampoos.
  • Don't use perms or hair colours on thinning hair – colours may not take well and perms can damage the hair
  • Use a soft baby brush and comb thinning hair gently.
  • Avoid using hair dryers, curling tongs, hair straighteners and curlers on thinning hair and pat your hair dry after washing.
  • If your scalp flakes or itches this means it is dry – use oil or moisturiser, not dandruff shampoo.
  • Protect your scalp by covering your head in the sun.

Covering your head

There are a lot of ways to cover your head if your hair falls out.

A wig is the most obvious choice. But not everyone wants to wear one. They can be a bit hot and itchy, especially in the summer. You can wear a soft inner cap (a wig stocking) under the wig to make it more comfortable. Some people worry that the wig will slip or fall off. You can buy sticky pads designed specifically to keep the wig still. 

Some people prefer hats, scarves or baseball caps. Or you can just leave your head uncovered if you feel confident with your bald head.

Ask your nurse if you think you would like a wig. Some people can get a wig on the NHS.

There are different types of hats and scarves you can wear when you have hair loss or thinning. You can buy these in high street shops or on the internet.

When your hair grows back

Chemotherapy

Hair usually grows back once your chemotherapy has finished.  In very rare cases the hair does not grow back. This usually only happens with very high doses of particular drugs.

Regrowth might take several months or longer and your hair is likely to be softer. It might come back a different colour and may be curlier than before. It will probably grow back at the same rate as it grew before chemotherapy.

Hormone therapy

Hair thinning due to hormone therapy could stop or slow within the first year of starting treatment. Or it should at least improve once treatment has finished. 

Targeted cancer drugs

Within a few weeks of finishing targeted cancer drugs you should have:

  • thickening of hair if you had hair thinning
  • regrowth of hair if you had hair loss

With some targeted drugs, hair might start to grow before you stop your treatment. 

Radiotherapy

Hair usually grows back after for most people. But some people might have permanent hair loss. This is more likely if you have had higher doses of radiotherapy. Ask your doctor what they think might happen in your situation.

It might take 6 months, or more for hair to grow back. The more radiotherapy you have had, the longer your hair takes to grow back.

It may not be quite as thick as before, or regrowth could be patchy. Your hair might grow back a different colour or texture. For example, it may be curly when it used to be straight.

Your feelings about hair loss

Some people find hair loss one of the hardest parts of having cancer treatment.

This is understandable because our appearance is closely linked to our feelings of self esteem. Hair is particularly important in some cultures and religions. Hair loss can be just as devastating for men as it can be for women. 

Trying to accept sudden changes in your looks can be very hard. Social activities might seem more difficult.

It’s not unusual to feel angry and depressed.  You may think that you are no longer as physically attractive.  
 
You may have your concerns about how your friends and family see you. You might worry about how children and grandchildren feel when they see you without hair.  It’s natural to worry about these things and want to protect people.

Remember though, that the people closest to you will not see you any differently as a person. They will want to support you as much as they can, so it is important to tell them how you’re feeling.

Talking things through can help you to feel less isolated and more able to cope.

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday.

People's stories

PV first had his hair cut very short, then shaved it all off

"My hair started to fall out 2 weeks after my first chemotherapy session. As soon as I noticed a few strands coming out, I had my hair cut very short. A few days later it all started to come out and I shaved the rest off. As a man it doesn't really bother me and my wife quite likes my bald head. Still I'm looking forward to it growing back."

PF lost lots of hair and got a wig

"My doctor said my hair would gradually thin, so I was expecting it. However, I was a bit frightened when it started to come out in handfuls when I washed my hair. So I had my hair cut in a short style to suit thin hair. When I was in hospital the nurses organised for the wig lady to visit. She was very friendly and helped me choose a wig similar to my own colour and style. I was nervous when my daughter came to see me but she said she could hardly tell the difference. I thought it was a lot greyer than my real colour but my daughter thought it was a perfect match! I don't wear it all the time. I usually wear a scarf round my head but I like wearing my wig when I go out and I feel very comfortable in it."

EW's hair grew back curly, then straightened

"My hair took about 6 to 7 months to grow back. At first, it was quite curly, but as it grew, it became heavier and the curls dropped out."
Last reviewed: 
25 Sep 2017
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