Wigs for cancer treatment
Wigs are an option if you have hair loss during cancer treatment. There are many different styles and colours available.
Many people choose to wear a wig or hairpiece. There are many different styles and colours to choose from. Wigs can be natural-looking and comfortable to wear.
Wearing a wig can help you look and feel more like yourself. This can make you feel more confident and more in control of how you look.
In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, you can get a wig free on the NHS. Some people can get a wig free on the NHS in England, but others may need to pay.
Your specialist nurse can tell you how to get a wig on the NHS. The process is different in different hospitals. Some may have a wig specialist who visits the hospital. Others will have a wig supplier that you can visit. There may also be a limited choice of wigs available on the NHS.
You may be able to have more than 1 wig on the NHS. However, some hospitals set limits on the number of wigs a person can have.
Human hair wigs cannot be prescribed on the NHS, unless:
- you are allergic to synthetic wigs
- you have a skin condition that may be made worse by a synthetic wig.
We have a video with more information on choosing and styling a wig.
Wigs can be synthetic or made of human hair. All wigs come with instructions on how to care for them. Following these makes sure your wig will look good and last as long as possible.
The way synthetic wigs are made has improved in recent years. Synthetic wigs:
- can look very natural.
- are cheaper than human hair wigs. They usually cost between 50 and several hundred pounds.
- are light and easy to look after.
- have the style heat-sealed into the hair. This means they can be hand-washed with cold or tepid water and shampoo, and left to dry overnight. They will then be ready to wear the next day.
- can be combed or brushed through gently.
- usually last 4 to 8 months.
Human hair wigs
A human hair wig may be made of hair from a number of people. This means it may be made up of different hair types, which are often bleached and then dyed.
Human hair wigs:
- can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds.
- are not usually available on the NHS.
- may need regular cleaning and styling by a professional, which can be expensive.
It can help to have 2 wigs so that you can wear 1 while the other is being cleaned. Some human hair wigs can be shampooed and styled at home on a specially-designed wig block. Your wig supplier can advise you about this.
If you are having a human hair wig made for you, you may need to go for 2 or 3 fittings. It can take a few months to complete.
Blended hair wigs
You can get wigs which have been made from a mixture of human hair and synthetic hair. They may need special care as the synthetic hairs may stretch and frizz when using a hairdryer or hair straighteners. Ask your wig supplier for more information.
Using your own hair
Some people wonder if they can have their own hair cut off and made into a wig. However, this is usually only possible if your natural hair is long and in good condition. Even then, you may not have enough hair to make a wig.
Making a human hair wig is a specialised technique, so it is expensive (around £2,500 or more). It will usually take at least 10 weeks to make.
Choosing a wig before your hair falls out means you can match the style and colour to your own hair. It also means you can get used to wearing a wig before you really need it. You will also be prepared in case your hair falls out sooner than expected.
It may be a good idea to take a family member or friend with you when you are choosing a wig. They can give an honest opinion about what suits you. You may want to try a different colour or style.
There is no pressure on you to choose a wig straight away. You can wait until you feel ready.
Short hair wigs
There is less choice in short hair wigs. This is because it is difficult to make a short hair wig look natural around the hairline. Slightly longer hair styles can work better.
Wigs for people who are Black or from a minority ethnic group
Most NHS wig suppliers should have styles for people from any ethnic group. There are companies that work with the NHS to do this. But you may need to contact a specialist wig supplier or look online. Your specialist nurse can give you more information.
Matching your current style
- Choose a wig which has the same volume of hair as you, or slightly less. This will make it less obvious that you are wearing a wig. Remember a wig can be cut and styled by a hairdresser or wig consultant.
- Choose your own colour or a shade lighter. Changing to a lighter colour is usually less noticeable.
- If your hair has not fallen out yet, the wig may feel quite tight. Try to get a wig that adjusts to any head size. As your hair falls out, you will need a smaller size.
- It can help to have a family member or friend with you to give an honest opinion on the wig.
- You could also ask your hairdresser to help you choose your wig or hairpiece. Some hairdressers are specially trained to supply, cut and style wigs. You can find salons in your area on the My New Hair website. Some wig providers may also be able to cut and style a wig when you have it fitted.
Having your wig fitted can be emotional. Your wig supplier will understand your feelings and do their best to help you feel comfortable. Most wig fitters will have a private room where you can try on a wig. They will advise you on how to care for it and keep it in place.
Wigs can be expensive, but there are several ways to reduce the cost.
Synthetic wigs are free on prescription for people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If you live in England, you may need to pay a surgical appliance prescription charge. There are special arrangements for patients who are registered with GPs in Wales but have treatment in England.
You can get a free NHS wig in England if:
- you are under 16
- you are under 19 and in full-time education
- you are a hospital inpatient
- your weekly income is below a certain level
- you claim certain benefits
- you have a valid NHS tax credit 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 your wig. You will need to show proof that you qualify. This might include the letter showing which benefits you receive.
Help with wig costs
You can apply to get a free wig or help towards the cost of a wig by completing an HC1 form. Your income will be assessed. If you are entitled to help, you will be sent either:
- an HC2 full-help certificate
- a HC3 partial-help certificate.
You may be able to apply for grants and benefits from other organisations or charities to help pay for a wig. A Macmillan Grant can be used towards the cost of a wig.
You may want to consider buying a wig from a wig bank. Wig banks in different parts of the UK collect wigs that people no longer need. You can find a wig bank online, or ask your wig provider.
Children and young people
The Little Princess Trust offers free human hair wigs to children and young people up to the age of 24.
Buying a wig or hairpiece privately
Some people choose to buy a wig privately. There are specialist wig suppliers, or you may be able to buy a wig in a department store or wig shop.
If your hair loss is caused by cancer treatment, you should not have to pay VAT on wigs or hairpieces. Not all wig suppliers offer this service, so check before you buy from them. The tax cannot be claimed back at a later date. You will need to fill in a VAT exemption form when you buy the wig. The wig provider can provide this.
Your wig provider can give you tips and advice about wearing your wig and keeping it in place.
A well-fitting wig should stay in place on its own, but there are things that can give you extra confidence that your wig is secure:
- Use double-sided tape. Wig specialists have hypoallergenic tape that does not irritate the skin. Your skin may be very sensitive due to your cancer treatment. Check with your doctor or nurse which tape you can use and how best to remove it.
- If you have some of your own hair, you may be able to use clips to keep your wig or hairpiece in place.
- If you can, bend over and gently shake your head to check your wig or hairpiece is securely in place.
- You could wear a hat or scarf to help secure your wig if it is very windy. But wearing something over your wig a lot of the time will cause friction. This can lead to the wig not lasting as long as it should.
- If you need to remove any clothing, such as at a doctor’s appointment or when clothes shopping, avoid pulling clothes over your head. Wear something that is easy to remove, such as a cardigan or shirt.
- When you first wear your wig, you may want to wear it at home or when you are with people you know well. This can help you feel more confident.
The following tips can help you to stay cool while wearing a wig:
- Choose a synthetic (man-made) wig. They are often lighter than human hair wigs.
- Wear a cotton wig liner on your scalp to absorb moisture. Try to wash this every day to protect your scalp from sweat.
- Use a wet cloth or an alcohol-free, fragrance-free spray to freshen your scalp throughout the day.
- Whenever possible, take the wig off to let air get to your scalp.
- Take your wig off at night and when you have a shower.
Your wig provider can give you tips and advice about caring for the wig and your scalp.
The lining of the wig can irritate the scalp, so it can help 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.
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. Both synthetic and human hair wigs need to be washed carefully, using slightly warm or cold water. You can also use special shampoos.
Remember not to expose your wig to a flame, or heat from an oven or hairdryer. Real hair will frizz and synthetic hair can melt.
The charity Cancer Hair Care has more information.
Wig banks in different parts of the UK collect wigs that people no longer need. They may sell them at a discounted rate.
Some wig banks are charities that recycle wigs or provide other support to people affected by cancer and hair loss. Others are wig companies or support groups that offer a wig recycling service. You can find a wig bank online, or ask your wig provider.
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.
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