Cancer treatment: coping with hair loss

Louise Spence
Oncology Nurse Adviser, Bupa UK
14 July 2021
Next review due July 2024

Cancer treatments can come with a whole host of side-effects. But losing your hair is one of the most well-known, the most visible and often, the most upsetting. If you’re about to have cancer treatment, it can help to know what to expect and how to prepare for potential hair loss.

woman with a headscarf at a grocery store

The emotional impact of hair loss

Our hair can often be an important part of our identity. Losing it can understandably have a big emotional impact. If you’ve been told you need cancer treatment, the possibility of losing your hair can be a really worrying thought. It’s worth remembering that for most people, any hair loss is temporary, and there are lots of practical ways to deal with it. There are also lots of places offering support.

What cancer treatments cause hair loss?

Several different cancer treatments can cause hair loss. These include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormonal and targeted (biological) therapy. It doesn’t make a difference which type of cancer you have. It’s the treatment that causes hair loss, rather than the cancer itself.

You can lose hair anywhere on your body. This might include the hair on your head, your eyebrows and eyelashes, facial and body hair, and your underarm and pubic hair.

Why does cancer treatment cause hair loss?

Cancer treatments affect hair in different ways.

  • Chemotherapy works by targeting growing cells. This includes healthy cells, such as your hair follicles (where hair grows from), as well as cancer cells. You don’t always lose your hair with chemotherapy. But if you do, it can vary from just a small amount to total hair loss. It usually happens gradually, within a couple of weeks of your first session, but sometimes it can be more sudden. Your hair will usually start to grow back once your treatment is over.
  • Radiotherapy can cause hair loss in the areas where you’ve been treated. This may be where the radiation beam enters your body as well as where it leaves. Whether your hair grows back and how quickly depends on how much radiotherapy you’ve had and the area of your body affected.
  • Hormonal and targeted therapy can make your hair thinner. It nearly always goes back to how it was after you’ve finished treatment.

Can anything prevent hair loss?

For some types of chemotherapy, you may be able to try something called scalp cooling or ‘cold caps’. It involves wearing a cap to cool your scalp before, during and after your chemotherapy. This can reduce blood flow to your scalp, stopping so much of the chemotherapy drugs reaching your hair follicles. It’s not suitable for everyone, and it doesn’t always work. But if it’s available at your hospital and it’s something you’re interested in trying, talk to your doctor or nurse.

You may not always be able to stop hair loss, but there are ways to minimise damage if your hair starts to become dry and brittle. Use gentle hair products when washing your hair and be careful when styling it.

Try using a wide-toothed comb rather than a brush and avoid too much heat from hairdryers or straighteners. Pat your hair dry instead. Don’t use any chemicals on your hair.

Preparing for hair loss

There are lots of things you can do to prepare for possible hair loss.

  • Talk to family and friends about what might happen and how you’re feeling about it beforehand. They can then be ready to support you. It can help to explain to children in advance too.
  • Some people prefer to cut their hair short before they start losing any hair. Hair loss can be less noticeable with shorter hair, and it can feel less emotional than losing long hair too. It can help to do this in stages.
  • If you’re worried about losing eyebrows and eyelashes, look into products you could use, like eyebrow pencils and false eyelashes. You may be able to talk to a beauty advisor trained in supporting people with cancer. There’s also plenty of advice online.
  • Think about how you’ll deal with loss of your hair if it does happen. You may feel comfortable without wearing anything on your head. But if you do want to, there are plenty of options available, including wigs, hairpieces, hats, scarves and bandanas. It’s good to have these ready before you begin treatment. Lots of organisations have advice on choosing wigs and how to wear scarves and bandanas, including Breast Cancer Now (see other helpful websites below).

Finally, don’t forget your healthcare team are there to support you with any concerns you have. Talk to your cancer nurse if you’re worried about hair loss and the options available to manage it.

Other helpful websites

Nobody likes to think about being diagnosed with cancer. But our health insurance gives you personal cancer care with support at every stage of your treatment for as long as you have a policy with us. Learn more about our health insurance.

Louise Spence
Louise Spence
Oncology Nurse Adviser, Bupa UK

    • Hair loss during treatment. Macmillan Cancer Support., reviewed 30 September 2017
    • Hair loss. Macmillan Cancer Support., reviewed 30 September 2017
    • Side effects of chemotherapy. Macmillan Cancer Support., reviewed 30 September 2018
    • Hair loss, hair thinning and cancer drugs. Cancer Research UK., last reviewed 10 January 2020
    • Scalp cooling. Macmillan Cancer Support., last reviewed 30 September 2017

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