Hair grows from tiny dents in the skin called follicles. Each hair grows, rests and then falls out. In a healthy body, about 90% of the hairs (9 out of 10) are at the growing stage of this cycle.
If you are having chemotherapy, radiotherapy or other cancer treatments, you may lose your hair or find that it becomes thinner. These changes are almost always temporary.
If you are having an operation on a part of the body that has hair, that area will be shaved. Your hair will grow back after the operation. However, it may not grow back along the scar line.
We have some practical tips about looking after your hair.
We have more information on how each treatment may affect your hair, and ways to cope.
Booklets and resources
Before your hair starts to fall out, there are things you can do to prepare yourself practically and emotionally.
Talk to people
You may worry about how other people will react when you lose your hair.
Some people may feel uncomfortable and be unsure what to say. It can help to talk to people about it before you lose your hair. This can help them know how you feel and how they can help support you. For example, they may be able to help you choose a wig or hairpiece that suits you.
You may find it helpful to talk to your hairdresser or barber. They may have clients who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment. They may be able to offer advice and support. And they will know what to expect next time you come in.
Talking to children
If you have children, you may worry that they will be scared if they see you without hair. When children are told about changes to your appearance before they happen, they usually cope well.
Join a support group
You may find it helpful to talk to other people who have, or have had, hair loss. Ask your doctor or nurse about cancer support groups in your local area.
Get a wig before treatment starts
If you think you would like to wear a wig, it is a good idea to get one before you start treatment. This means:
- it is easier to match the wig to your own hair colour and style
- you can get used to wearing it before your hair starts to fall out
- it will be ready in case you lose your hair earlier or more quickly than expected.
You may feel that everyone will notice that you are wearing a wig. But wigs are often very good and can be cut and styled so people may not realise. Some salons have specially trained hairdressers who can style your wig ready for you to use.
You can contact the charity My New Hair to find out more.
Buy a hat or other headwear
You will probably not want to wear a wig all the time. For example, you might not want to wear a wig at home, or when you are on your own.
However, your scalp will be more sensitive to cold, windy or sunny weather. If you are used to having a full head of hair, your head may feel cold even when you are at home.
There are different options for keeping your head warm or protected. For example, you can wear a:
- baseball cap
You may want to wear a head covering while your hair is falling out. We have more information about different head coverings.
Consider cutting your hair short
Many people decide to prepare themselves for losing their hair by cutting it short. Losing smaller clumps of hair can be easier to cope with than losing longer clumps. Hair often comes out in uneven patches, and this is usually less distressing with shorter hair.
It can also give your family and friends the chance to get used to seeing you with less hair. Cutting your hair in stages will give you time to get used to a new length.
If you do not want to cut your hair for cultural or religious reasons, you may find other headwear helpful, such as hats, scarves or bandanas.
If you want a hairdresser or barber to cut your hair, you can ask your own. There are also places that specialise in styling hair for people affected by cancer. You can find these through the charity My New Hair which supports people with medical hair loss.
Removing all of your hair
Some people choose to shave their heads completely before they start losing their hair. This can give a sense of control over what is going to happen.
If your hair is long enough, you may wish to donate it to the Little Princess Trust. This is a charity that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair.
If you do want to remove all your hair, use clippers. Avoid using a blade or razor as this can lead to cuts and infections.
Tips for using clippers
- If you have never used clippers before, talk to a hairdresser or barber first. They should be understanding and can give you advice.
- Remove most of your hair with scissors first. Then use a set of clippers with a cutting guard or attachment to prevent cuts. You might find it easier to get someone to help you.
- Some clippers have a power cord, and some are cordless. The head of the clippers may swivel or be fixed in place. If you can, ask someone who uses clippers what they would recommend.
- It is easier to use clippers on clean, dry hair with no products in it. Make sure you feel comfortable using the clippers before you start. The charity Cancer Hair Care has a guide on using clippers.
- Leave a very short layer of hair. Do not use a ‘0’ setting, as you cannot use a guard with this setting.
Think about your eyebrows and eyelashes
You might be worried about losing your eyebrows and eyelashes. Before you lose your hair, you could buy any products you might need, and learn how to use them.
You could check whether your local Boots store has a Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor. They offer free, face-to-face advice about caring for your skin, hair and nails during and after cancer treatment.
When your hair falls out, your scalp may feel tender or sore. There are things you can do to help look after your scalp.
You might find it helpful to wear a hair net, soft cap or turban at night. This will stop your hair becoming tangled, and will collect any loose hair.
No matter how much you have prepared yourself, it can be distressing when your hair starts falling out. Allow yourself time to feel sad and upset, or angry. It is understandable to feel these emotions.
People have different feelings about losing their hair. For some, losing their hair is one of the hardest parts of cancer treatment. For others, it is not as bad as they expected. Some people are not concerned about losing their hair.
Hair can be an important part of your appearance and identity. Losing your hair can have a big effect on how you feel about yourself. If you can, talk to someone about your feelings. They can reassure you that you are still the same person. You will just look a little different for a while because of the treatment.
You may feel uncomfortable around other people. You may lose your self-confidence, or feel anxious or depressed. You might also worry about how losing your hair will affect relationships with family or friends.
For some people, hair plays an important part in their religion. For example, many Sikh people do not cut their hair or shave.
If you have had long hair, a beard or moustache for a long time, losing this can be difficult. You may think of your hair, beard or moustache as part of your usual appearance and not feel right without them for a while.
Other people’s reactions
Many people know that cancer treatment can affect your hair. Your family or friends may be upset by your hair loss. This can be difficult for you when you already have a lot to cope with. But their reaction is usually because they are concerned for you. They may not know how to react.
Losing your hair can also be a visible reminder of the cancer for you and other people. You might think that your hair loss tells other people you are having cancer treatment, even if you have not told them yourself. This might mean you want to avoid people.
Remember, it is your choice whether you tell people you have cancer. You should not feel under pressure to tell people if you do not want to.
Many people find that their family or friends are very supportive. You may find it helpful to talk with them about how losing your hair makes you feel.
But you may not want to talk with people you know. Or they may not feel comfortable talking about cancer and treatment side effects.
Whatever your situation, it can take time to come to terms with hair loss and be able to talk about it with other people.
Some people find it easier to talk to people they do not know. At the hospital you will probably meet other people who have lost their hair. They may be able to give you advice and tips on how they have coped.
You can also meet people at cancer support groups, or online. Our Online Community is a place to chat with other people, make friends and join support groups. You can also read posts or blogs that other people have written about hair loss, or write about your experiences.
If you are finding it hard to cope with hair loss, cancer or your treatment, you can also call our cancer support specialists for free on 0808 808 00 00. They can listen to you, provide emotional support and tell you about other sources of help.
The charity Cancer Hair Care also offers a free phone advice service.
There are different ways to cope with hair loss. These include wearing wigs, hats, scarves and bandanas. Some people prefer to go bald and rarely wear any kind of head covering. It is important to do what feels right for you.
Different hospitals offer different support when you are losing your hair. Your specialist nurse will know what support is available at the hospital and in your area. You can also ask a hairdresser or barber for advice.
Some hospitals have staff who can show you how to wear different types of headwear. Some hospitals run hair and beauty programmes for people with cancer.
If you choose to wear a wig or other headwear, you may want to wear something underneath to give a bit of lift and volume. You can buy caps online that are designed to do this.
Cancer Hair Care has more information about different options for coping with hair loss.
You might choose a wig in a similar style to your usual hairstyle. Or you might try out different styles. If you have only lost some of your hair, a half or three-quarter wig may be suitable for you. These cover a smaller area of your head and blend in with your natural hair.
Hats come in many different shapes, styles and colours, and will help keep your head warm and covered. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is also a great way of protecting your head and scalp from the sun. You can find hats in department stores, specialist hat shops and online.
Scarves and bandanas
Scarves and bandanas are available in different colours and materials, and are light and easy to wear. The best fabrics to use are cotton, light-weight wool, or blends. Satin-type materials tend to slide off the head too easily. We have more information on how to tie a scarf or bandana.
Some companies design headwear specially for people who lose their hair due to cancer treatment. Any headwear should cover the hairline and be comfortable to wear. You can find specialist headwear stores online. You could ask your chemotherapy nurse about local suppliers.
Turbans can be made of cotton, velvet, silk, bamboo or towelling. They are comfortable to wear, especially in hot weather. Some people find it comfortable to sleep in a turban. They are available from:
- some pharmacists
- department stores
- hair loss suppliers
- specialist wig shops
- the internet.
African and Caribbean headwraps may be made of a thicker cotton fabric than scarves and bandanas. You can buy these from specialist shops online and also find instructions for tying them in different ways.
Make your own head covering
You can also make head coverings yourself. This might be using fabric, or from clothing such as a t-shirt. There are videos online telling you how to do this.
Hair accessories and replacements
Some wig suppliers sell fringes on a Velcro® band. Some suppliers also make turbans and scarves with optional fringes, or headbands with hair attached. You can also order hats, headbands or bandanas with attached hair from specialist suppliers.
Hairpieces and clip-in hair can be used to thicken thin hair. They can also cover small areas of hair loss, for example from radiotherapy. They are only suitable if you have some hair of a suitable length. You can attach them using glues, clips or double-sided tape. Remember to remove any hairpieces and clips before sleeping to avoid damage to your natural hair.
Extensions, weaves and any plaiting or bonding systems will put extra tension on your remaining hair. If you wish to use these, it is important to make sure your hair is in good enough condition. Avoid putting tension on your hair if it is fragile. A hairdresser or barber professional can advise you about this.
Change in hairstyle
If you have only lost some of your hair, you may find that a change in hairstyle helps hide any hair thinning. There are hairdressers and barbers who can give you advice about a change of style that is suitable for you. The charity My New Hair has details of trained hairdressers.
If you are a teenager or young adult, changes in how you look can be very upsetting. There are lots of natural-looking wigs and other ways to cover hair loss. The Little Princess Trust provides free real-hair wigs to young people up to age 24 who have hair loss as a result of cancer treatment.
There are things you can do to help take people’s attention away from your hair loss:
- Wear brightly coloured dresses, shirts, sweaters, tops, ties or neck scarves.
- Try wearing makeup around your eyes, cheekbones or lips to direct attention to your face.
- Wear glasses. This can be helpful if you have lost your eyebrows or eyelashes.
- Wear jewellery. Earrings can look good with any form of head covering. And necklaces can draw attention to your neck.
Some hospitals and support groups run programmes, such as Look Good Feel Better. These give expert advice on skincare, styling and managing some of the physical and emotional side effects of cancer treatment. Your nurse can tell you if there is a programme like this in your hospital or at a nearby support group.
At first, you may not feel confident going out and seeing people. But hopefully, as you spend more time with others, your confidence will grow. We have more information about body image and cancer.
Most people find their hair will start to grow back after their treatment is over. Your hair may grow back differently. Your hair may need to get to a certain length before you can have it cut or apply any treatments.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our cancer pain information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
Cancer Hair Care website: www.cancerhaircare.co.uk (accessed June 2022).
Dilawari A, Gallagher C, Alintah P, et al. Does scalp cooling have the same efficacy in Black patients receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer? Oncologist, 2021; Volume 26(4):292-e548. Available from www.doi:10.1002/onco.13690 (accessed June 2022).
Kinoshita T, Nakayama T, Fukuma E, et al. Efficacy of scalp cooling in preventing and recovering from chemotherapy-induced alopecia in breast cancer patients: The HOPE Study. Front Oncol, 2019; 9:733. Available from www.doi:10.3389/fonc.2019.00733 (accessed Oct 2022).
Sung-chan Gwark, Sei Hyun Ahn, Woo Chul Noh, et al. Similar negative emotional impact on hair loss in neoadjuvant endocrine therapy compared to neoadjuvant chemotherapy in young women with breast cancer from patient reported outcomes. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2020; 38:15 suppl, e19242-e19242. Available from ascopubs.org/doi/abs/10.1200/JCO.2020.38.15_suppl.e19242 (accessed June 2022).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
The language we use
We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.
We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:
- use plain English
- explain medical words
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- use illustrations to explain text
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We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.
You can read more about how we produce our information here.
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