About hair loss

Hair grows from tiny dents in the skin called follicles. Each hair grows, rests and then falls out. When we are healthy, about 90% of our hair is at the growing stage of this cycle. Cancer treatments can affect the normal stages your hair goes through when it grows.

Cancer treatments and hair loss

You may experience hair loss if you are having chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or hormonal and targeted (biological) therapy. If you are having surgery in an area of the body that has hair, such as an operation for a brain tumour, an area of the head will be shaved. This is usually a small area of hair and it will grow back after the operation.

There are practical steps you can take to reduce hair loss during treatment, including scalp cooling. We have more information on how each treatment may affect your hair, and ways to cope.

How to prepare for hair loss

There are things that you can do to help you feel more in control when your hair starts to fall out.

Talk to family and friends

Other people’s reactions to your hair loss can sometimes be difficult to cope with. It can help if you talk about it first. Once they hear you talking about your hair loss, they may be able to offer you more help and support.

If you have children, you may worry that they will be scared if they see you without hair. But children usually cope well when they are told about any changes to your appearance in advance.

Join a hair loss support group

You may find it helpful to talk to other people with hair loss. You can talk to people who are going through the same thing and exchange tips on how to cope. Ask your doctor or nurse about support groups in your local area. Support is also available on our Online Community.

Get a wig before treatment starts

If you decide you would like to wear a wig, it is a good idea to get one before you start treatment. It will be easier to match the wig to your own hair colour and style. You can get used to wearing the wig before your hair starts to fall out. It will also be ready in case your hair loss happens earlier or quicker than you expect.

In England, some people can get wigs for free on the NHS. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, some wigs are free on prescription.

Buy a hat or other headwear

Your scalp will be more sensitive to cold, windy or sunny weather. Even at home your head may feel very cold if you have been used to having a full head of hair. Some people find they prefer to wear a hat, a scarf, or bandana, instead of a wig.

Cut your hair short

Many people prepare themselves for losing their hair by cutting it short. Losing smaller clumps of hair can be less emotional than losing longer clumps. Hair often comes out in uneven patches. This is usually less noticeable on shorter hair. It can also give your family and friends the chance to get used to seeing you with shorter hair. You can cut your hair in stages to give you time to get used to a new length.

Some people prefer to shave their heads completely before they start losing their hair. This can give a sense of control over what is going to happen. You may prefer to do this rather than wait for your hair to fall out.

If you decide to crop your hair short yourself, remove the length of your hair with scissors first. Then use a set of clippers with a cutting. If possible, try to get someone to help you with this. Don’t shave your head with a blade, as this can lead to cuts and infection.

Prepare your eyebrows and eyelashes

You might be worried about losing your eyebrows and eyelashes. It may be a good plan to buy products you think you will need and learn how to use them.

You could check whether a Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor is available at your local Boots store. Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisors have been trained to support people living with cancer. They offer free, face-to-face advice about caring for your skin, hair and nails. Visit boots.com/macmillan to find out more.

Emotional support during hair loss

Our hair can be an important part of our appearance and identity. It may be a way we express our personality. Often, when our hair looks good, we feel good. For some, losing their hair is one of the hardest parts of having treatment. For others, it is not as bad as they expected.

You may feel low in confidence, anxious or depressed. You may feel angry that the hair loss is a visible reminder of the cancer – for you and for others. It may feel like you have to tell people about your cancer diagnosis when you don’t want to.

All these different feelings are completely normal. Our information about the emotional effects of cancer suggests different ways to manage difficult feelings.

Managing other people’s reactions

Today, cancer is much more talked about than it was in the past. People are more aware of the effects of cancer treatment on hair. It is more openly discussed and accepted. But sometimes family and friends may be upset by your hair loss and find it hard not to show it. This can be difficult for you to deal with. Try to remember it is usually because they are concerned for you and may not know how to react.

We have more information on managing reactions to changes in appearance.

Talking about hair loss

It may take some time for you to come to terms with your hair loss. It may also take you time to talk with other people about your hair loss and deal with their reactions. 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 in your area. Some people find it easier to talk to someone they do not know.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can do the following:

Hair loss for children and teenagers

Many children are not worried about their hair loss. But if they do want to cover up, there are wigs available for children. If a child needs treatment from time to time over a few years, they will probably need a new wig each time while their head is still growing.

If you are a teenager, changes in how you look can be very upsetting. The Teenage Cancer Trust has a project called Hair4U. This offers young people with cancer the opportunity to choose a free, human-hair wig and have it styled at a salon.

Practical help with hair loss

These tips are suitable for all hair types. If your hair is dry or brittle during or after your cancer treatment, the following information could help. The tips are especially helpful for curly or Afro-Caribbean hair, which naturally gets damaged more easily.

Washing your hair

You should wash your hair at least once every two days. Leaving a longer time between washes will not prevent hair loss. Not washing your hair may cause problems as any hair you lose can build up on your head and tangle. Only use gentle hair products and non-medicated shampoo when you wash your hair. Special products are available for Afro-Caribbean hair and other hair types. If you are having radiotherapy to your head, check with the radiotherapy staff if you can use shampoo and ask which type is best.

Styling your hair

Don’t rub hard when you dry your hair with a towel. When you style your hair, use a brush with wide-spaced prongs or a wide-toothed comb. Full-bristle brushes will pull your hair. Use a wide-toothed comb when your hair is wet, as combs cause less damage than brushes. Start combing from the ends to reduce tangles.

Avoid too much heat from hairdryers, hair straighteners or heated rollers. These can dry the hair and make it break. Try to leave your hair damp, as moisture is important for your hair’s health.

Avoid perming, colouring or chemically relaxing your hair, as this can make it even more dry and brittle. Avoid wearing your hair in a tight band, as this can damage and break it. If you plait your hair, plait it gently. At night, wear a hair net, soft cap or turban to stop your hair becoming tangled and to collect any loose hair.

Caring for your skin

If your hair falls out, it is important to take care of the skin on your head and other places where you had hair. It may be more sensitive or tender than skin on other parts of your body. You can find more information about coping with changes to your appearance during treatment.

Eyebrows, eyelashes and other body hair

Losing your eyebrows, eyelashes and other body hair can be upsetting. But there are practical ways to cope with these changes. We have more information about cancer treatment and your appearance.

Moustaches and beards

Facial hair can be an important part of your identity. Or it may be important for cultural or religious reasons. Losing a moustache or a beard can be very difficult to deal with. Some online companies, make-up shops or theatrical shops sell moustaches or beards. Some of these can be tailored specially, but this can be very expensive.

Pubic hair

Some people temporarily lose their pubic hair. This can be upsetting and you may worry about how you look. If you have a partner, you may also be concerned about what they think and worry that it could affect your sex life. Try to be open with your partner and talk about how you feel. Often by talking, you will find that it is not such a problem after all.

Nasal hair

If you lose the hair from inside your nose, you may be more likely to have a runny nose. Although this can be irritating, it is only temporary and will stop when the hairs grow back. Try to take plenty of tissues with you when you go out.

Wigs and other options for people with hair loss

There are many practical ways to cope with hair loss. They do not make the problem disappear, but they can make life a bit easier for you during this difficult time.

Some hospitals run hair and beauty programmes for people affected by cancer. Most of these programmes are for women, but Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) also offers support for men affected by cancer. It includes practical tips on coping with hair loss.

You could try one of the following options:

  • Wigs

    Many people choose to wear a wig, as they want to look the way they usually do. You may not want people other than close family and friends to know you have cancer. 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, there are also half wigs and three-quarter wigs that may be suitable for you.

    We have more information about finding, buying and styling wigs.

  • Hats

    Hats are a popular option. They come in many different shapes, styles and colours. They can be very practical to keep your head warm. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat outside is also a great way of protecting your head and scalp from the sun. Try on a range of different styles to find one that suits you and feels comfortable.

  • Scarves and bandanas 

    Scarves and bandanas are another option. They 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 with instructions and suggestions on how to tie scarves and bandanas.

  • Turbans 

    Turbans are available in different materials, such as velvet, silk, cotton and towelling. They are popular and comfortable to wear, especially in hot weather. They are available from some chemists, department stores, specialist wig shops, and from some specialist suppliers.

  • Hair accessories and replacements 

    If you normally have a fringe, you can get one on a Velcro® band from some wig suppliers. 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.

    Avoid extensions, weaves and any plaiting or bonding systems, as this will put extra tension on the remaining hair. This can affect hair growth and could cause more hair loss.

    Hairpieces and clip-in hair can be used to thicken thin hair or to cover up small areas of hair loss, for example from radiotherapy. They are only suitable for you if you have some hair. You can attach them using glues, clips or double-sided tape. Remove any hairpieces and clips before sleeping to avoid damage to your natural hair.

  • Hair extensions 

    Hair extensions can thicken fine or wispy hair and can be clipped on to your own hair. However, they can cause damage, even to healthy hair, so are not suitable for weak or thin hair. Hair extensions are not available on the NHS.

  • Change in hair style

    If you have not lost all your hair, you may find that a change in hairstyle helps cover up the hair loss. There are specialist hairdressers who can advise you on a change of style that is most suitable for your situation. Visit mynewhair.org to find details of trained hairdressers.

  • Hair transplants 

    Surgery to replace hair is only suitable if you have permanent hair loss, for example after radiotherapy. A hair transplant surgeon will take hair from a part of your head to cover the area of hair loss. The surgeon will test a small area first, to see if the hair transplants well.

    Techniques have greatly improved in recent years and the result can be very natural-looking hair. But this procedure is not suitable for everyone. It is important to talk to a specialist surgeon if you are thinking about this. Contact the Institute of Trichologists for a list of qualified cosmetic surgeons.

  • Proud to be bald 

    Although there are various types of headwear, you may prefer not to wear anything on your head. Some people like to show their individual style by using accessories. It is important to do what feels right for you.

Coping after hair loss

To start with, you may feel like your wig or other headwear is the first thing people look at. There are things you can do that take people's attention away from your hair loss:

  • Wear brightly coloured shirts, sweaters, tops, ties or neck scarves.
  • Try wearing make-up around your eyes, cheekbones or lips to direct attention to your face.
  • Wear glasses. This can be very helpful if you have lost your eyebrows or eyelashes.
  • Wear jewellery. Other people may notice or comment on your jewellery. Earrings can look good with hats and scarves.

At first, you may not feel confident going out and carrying on with your social life. But hopefully, as you spend more time with other people, your confidence will grow.

As your hair grows back

Some people believe massaging or rubbing their scalp will help their hair to grow faster. This can damage new hair growth and you should avoid it.

Having your hair styled by a hairdresser who knows you and understands your situation can be very helpful. Often people who were used to long hair find that a shorter style suits them. Your hairdresser can help you choose a style that suits you. Visit mynewhair.org to search for salons near you that are trained to support people affected by cancer.

As soon as your hair is long enough, you may no longer want to wear a wig or head covering. If you have a wig, you may be interested in giving it to a charity called Wig Bank, which cleans wigs and resells them for a low price.

Colouring your hair

Once your hair is about 3 inches (7½ cm) long, and your scalp is in a healthy condition, you can have your hair tinted, permed or chemically relaxed.

It is best to seek professional advice before you have your hair tinted, permed or chemically relaxed after cancer treatment. Your hair and scalp can react differently, so it is very important to carry out strand and skin sensitivity tests. This is needed even if the same hairdresser is using the same chemicals that were used before cancer treatment.

If you want to colour your hair yourself, ask your hairdresser for advice. They may suggest vegetable or plant-based dyes, which are more gentle on your hair and scalp than dyes containing chemicals.

It is important to know that many products that claim to be natural actually contain chemicals that may occasionally cause an allergic reaction. This often includes henna products. Unless the henna is bright red, it will have other forms of tint added to it. It is best to avoid henna products. If you do use a henna product, the colour the henna produces may be more intense after chemotherapy treatment.

Related Stories & Media