A practical way of coping with hair loss is to wear a wig or hairpiece. There are many different styles and colours to choose from. They can be natural-looking and comfortable to wear.
Wearing a wig can make you look and feel more like yourself, which can make you feel more confident. You are more in control of how you look and only need to tell people if you want to.
Choosing a wig before your hair falls out means you can match the style and colour to your own hair and get used to wearing it. This means you will also have a wig ready, in case your hair falls out sooner than you expected. There is less choice for men as it is difficult to make a men's short-hair wig look natural around the hairline. Slightly longer hair styles can work better.
Wigs can be man-made (synthetic).
- These wigs are cheaper than real-hair wigs, and are light and easier to look after. They can cost anything from 50 to several hundred pounds. But they may be free on prescription.
- The style is heat-sealed into the hair, so that they can be hand-washed with shampoo, left to dry overnight and are then ready to wear the next day. They can be combed or brushed through gently.
- They usually last for around 4 to 8 months.
These wigs may be made from different hair types, which are often bleached and then dyed.
- Human-hair wigs can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. They are not usually available on the NHS.
- They may need regular cleaning and styling by a professional, which can be expensive.
- Some human-hair wigs can be shampooed and styled at home on a specially-designed wig block. Your wig maker can advise you about this.
- It can help to have two wigs so that you can wear one while the other is being cleaned.
Due to the high demand for real hair, human hair can be mixed with synthetic hair. The synthetic hairs will stretch and frizz when a hairdryer or hair straighteners are used. Ask your hair supplier for more information about this.
Using your own hair
Many people wonder whether they can have their own hair cut off and made into a wig. This may only be possible if your natural hair is long and in good condition. Even if it is, you may not have enough hair to make a full wig. This is a specialised technique, so it will be expensive and will usually take at least 10 weeks to make.
Staff at the hospital will advise you on where to go to choose a wig or suggest organisations for you to use. It is a good idea to take a family member or friend with you to help you choose.
If your hair has not fallen out yet, the wig may feel quite tight. Some wigs can adjust to any head size.
There is no pressure on you to choose a wig straight away. You can wait until you feel ready. If you have a hairdresser you trust, you may find it useful to speak to them first.
Wigs if you are black or from an ethnic minority group
You may need to contact a specialist wig supplier to find a suitable wig. There are companies that work with the NHS to do this. Speak to your cancer nurse or doctor for more information. You can also contact Cancer Black Care for support and advice.
Tips for choosing a wig to match your current style:
- Choose the same volume of hair as you had before. Too much hair can make it look obvious that you are wearing a wig. Remember that the wig can be cut and styled by a hairdresser or the wig consultant.
- Choose your own colour or one shade lighter. If the hair is darker than your natural colour, it can look strange.
Some people choose to try different looks. Wigs are available in various colours and styles, so you may want to experiment with a different look.
Fitting your wig
Fitting your wig can be an emotional time. It may make losing your hair feel real for the first time. The wig specialists will understand your feelings and will do all they can to make you feel comfortable during your fitting.
If all your hair has fallen out and the wig is slipping, you can get sticky pads to hold it in place. Some pads are hypoallergenic, which means they are less likely to cause a skin reaction. These can be helpful if your skin is sensitive due to chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
A common worry people may have is how to keep a wig in place. Although a well-fitting wig should stay in place on its own, here are some tips to give you extra confidence that your wig is secure:
- Use double-sided tape. Wig specialists have hypoallergenic tape that does not irritate the skin. The tape is attached to the underside of the wig and gives a secure but comfortable bond. Surgical spirit can be used to remove any leftover adhesive. Your skin may be very sensitive due to your cancer treatment. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse which tape you can use and whether it is okay to use surgical spirit.
- If you still have some of your own hair, or if it is growing back, it may be possible to keep your wig or hairpiece in place by using special clips in various hair colours. The wig specialist can advise you about this.
- Bend over and shake your head to check your wig or hairpiece is securely in place.
- If it is windy outside, wear a hat or scarf to help secure your wig.
- If you are going to see the doctor for a check-up, wear something that is easy to take off, such as a cardigan or shirt. This is also a good idea when you are shopping and know that you will be trying on clothes.
- If you have any questions about your wig or how to look after it, check with the wig fitter, manufacturer or your hairdresser.
Wearing your wig in public for the first time
When you wear your wig in public for the first time, you may want to wear it when you are with people you know well.
This can help you feel more confident and gives you the chance to gradually prepare yourself for wearing the wig with people you do not know.
Protecting your scalp
The lining of the wig can irritate the scalp, so it may be helpful to wear a thin, cotton wig liner underneath. These are usually available from wig suppliers. They can sometimes make a wig move around more, so you may need to experiment to find out what works best for you.
Remember that your scalp may sweat more when you wear a wig, so you will need to wash the wig and liner as advised by the wig specialist.
Take care not to expose your wig to a flame, for example from a candle or gas cooker. Real hair will frizz and synthetic hair can melt. Even the heat that comes out when you open an oven door can make the hair frizzy. Do not use the highest heat setting on your hairdryer, as this can also melt the hair.
Changes to the wig
If you want to change the style or cut it shorter, check your hairdresser is trained to cut wigs. Visit mynewhair.org to look for salons in your area.
Looking after your wig
The supplier should give you tips about looking after your wig. Both synthetic and human-hair wigs need to be washed carefully, using slightly warm or cold water. You can also use special shampoos. The charity Cancer Hair Care has more information.
Tips to stay cool while wearing your wig or hairpiece
Many people do not want to wear a wig as they think it will be hot. But there are now wigs that have finer and lighter meshes. Ask your hair supplier for more information.
The following tips can help you to stay cool while wearing a wig:
- Choose a man-made (synthetic) wig. They are often lighter than human-hair wigs.
- Wear a cotton wig liner on your scalp to absorb moisture and heat.
- Wash the wig and liner as advised by the wig specialist.
- Use a wet cloth or an alcohol-free, unscented spray to freshen your scalp throughout the day.
- Whenever possible, for example at home, take the wig off to let air around your scalp.
NHS and Health Service wigs
Synthetic wigs are free on prescription for everyone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are special arrangements for patients who are registered with GPs in Wales but have treatment in England.
You can also qualify for a free NHS wig in England if:
- you are under 16, or under 19 and in full-time education
- you are a hospital inpatient
- your weekly income is low
- you claim any of the following benefits:
- you have a valid NHS tax exemption certificate
- you are named on a valid ‘help with health costs’ (HC2) certificate.
If you are entitled to a free wig, you will need to tell the person who fits it that you can get it free of charge. You will need to show proof that you qualify, for example the letter showing which benefits you receive.
If you do not qualify for a free wig, you may be able to reclaim the value added tax (VAT) on these items.
Applying for an NHS wig
To apply for a free wig or partial help towards the cost of a wig, you will need to complete an HC1 form. This is available from your local Jobcentre or the staff at the hospital. You can also request a form by calling the NHS Help with health costs number on 0300 123 0849. Your income will be assessed and, if you are entitled to help, you will either be sent an HC2 full-help certificate or HC3 partial-help certificate.
There are no nationally set limits on the number of wigs a person can have from the NHS. But local NHS organisations (individual hospitals) may set their own limits.
Human-hair wigs cannot be prescribed on the NHS, unless you are allergic to synthetic wigs or have a skin condition that may be made worse by a synthetic wig.
If you do not qualify for a free wig based on the conditions we mention here, some hospitals may still provide you with a free wig, or one at a discounted price. Speak to your healthcare team for more information.
Other financial help
You may be able to apply for grants and benefits from other organisations or charities to help pay for a wig.
We give one-off grants to help people with cancer that can be used towards the cost of a wig. You need to apply through a health or social care professional, such as a district nurse, social worker or a Macmillan nurse, if you have one.
Children and young people
The Little Princess Trust is an organisation that offers free, human-hair wigs to children and young people up to the age of 24.
A charity called Wig Bank collects wigs that people no longer need, cleans them and sells them at a discounted rate. There are Wig Bank services available in different parts of the UK. Visit wigbank.com to find out more and shop online.
Buying a wig or hairpiece privately
Some people can afford to buy a wig privately. It may then be possible to get one that looks more natural, and it may also suit their hairstyle and texture better.
If you want to buy a wig or hairpiece privately, you can get them from the following places:
- Wig sections in department stores. Remember that not all wig departments have a private area where you can try on a wig. You may want to check this before going to the store.
- A wig manufacturer.
- A specialist wig shop.
You should not have to pay VAT on wigs or hairpieces when your hair loss is caused by cancer treatment. But not all wig suppliers offer this service, so check before you buy from them. If they do offer the service, you will need to fill in a VAT exemption form, which the shop should give you when you buy the wig. The tax cannot be claimed back at a later date.
For more information, contact HMRC on 0300 200 3700 or visit gov.uk/guidance/vat-exemption-and-partial-exemption.