Wigs are practical solutions to hair loss. There are different styles available so you can find one that suits you. There are two main types of wig:

  • Human hair wigs – the most natural but more expensive.
  • Synthetic wigs – cheaper and available on the NHS.

Things to consider when choosing a wig:

  • Matching the volume and colour of your hair.
  • Getting one fitted before you lose your hair so you can get used to the wig.
  • Getting an adjustable size.
  • Whether to try a different style to your current one.

There are different options for paying for your wig:

  • NHS wigs are free in Scotland and Wales and for people on a low income in England.
  • Health Service wigs are free in Northern Ireland.
  • In England, you may be able to get a grant to help towards costs.
  • Or, you may want to buy a wig privately. You shouldn’t have to pay VAT on your wig if your hair loss is caused by cancer.

Wigs and hairpieces

One practical way of coping with hair loss is to wear a wig or hairpiece. There are many different styles and colours to choose from, and they are very natural-looking and comfortable to wear.

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. You will also have a wig ready in case your hair falls out faster than you expected. There is much less choice for men as it is difficult to make a man’s short hair wig look natural around the hairline. Slightly longer hair styles can work better.

Benefits of wearing a wig

  • You look and feel more like yourself.
  • You only need to tell close friends and family if you want to.
  • You can experiment with different colours and styles.
  • You are more in control of how you look.
  • It may help you to feel more confident.
  • Synthetic wigs require very little styling each morning (human hair wigs can take the same time or longer).

Types of wigs

Wigs can be made of human or synthetic hair.

Human hair wigs

These may be made from different hair types, which are often bleached and then dyed. Asian hair is sometimes used to make wigs for Caucasian hair. To do this, it is stripped of its protecting cuticle as the hair strands are thicker than Caucasian hair. This can cause the hair to become very brittle.

  • Human hair wigs can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds and are not usually available on the NHS.
  • They may need regular dry cleaning, setting and blow-drying by a professional, which can also be expensive.
  • Some human hair wigs can be shampooed and styled at home on a specially designed wig head 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. Check this with your hair supplier.

Synthetic wigs

Synthetic wigs used to have a bad reputation as they looked glossy. But they have improved a lot over the last few years.

  • They are cheaper than real hair wigs, and are light and easier to look after. They can cost anything from fifty to several hundred pounds, but may be free on the NHS.
  • The style is heat-sealed into the hair so that they can be hand-washed with shampoo, left to drip-dry overnight and are then ready to wear. They can be combed or brushed through gently.
  • They usually last for around 4–8 months.
  • Hair spray can be used if necessary, but try to avoid using too much as this can make the hair look dull and less natural.
  • All wigs come with instructions on how to look after them and you should follow these carefully.

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 that is the case, you may not have enough hair to make a full wig – it can sometimes take several heads of hair to make a wig. This is a specialised technique, so it will be expensive (£2,500 upwards) and will usually take at least ten weeks to be made.

Choosing a wig

The nurses on the ward can arrange for you to see a wig fitter or suggest organisations for you to use. Use our organisation database to find a list of wig makers. It’s a good idea to take a relative or friend with you to help you make the decision.

Some people like to choose their wig before their hair falls out so they can match the style and colour to their own hair. The advantage of this is that if you lose your hair more quickly than expected, you will already be prepared. It also gives you a chance to get used to the wig before you really need it.

If your hair hasn’t fallen out yet, the wig should be quite tight so that it gives a good fit later on. Some wigs adjust to any head size.

There is no pressure on you to choose a wig straight away. You can leave the decision until you feel ready. If you have a hairdresser you trust, you may find it useful to speak to them first.

Most hospitals will supply wigs to people having treatment as outpatients, but this doesn’t happen in all hospitals. If they don’t supply a wig, they should be able to tell you how to get one fitted.

Practical 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’re wearing a wig. If in doubt, choose a wig with slightly less hair than you had before. 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 to your family and friends. Changing to a lighter colour is usually less noticeable.
  • Remember when choosing a wig or hairpiece that, as your hair falls out, you will need a smaller size. Try to get a wig that adjusts to any head size.
  • If you have a good hairdresser, they could help you choose your wig or hairpiece and, if necessary, cut and style it. Wig specialists may also be able to cut and style a wig when you have it fitted. It is best to choose a hairdresser who is specially trained to cut wigs.
  • Take someone who will give you an honest opinion on the wig.
  • If you have any questions about your wig or how to look after it, check with the wig fitter, manufacturer or your hairdresser.

Another approach is to treat this as a chance to try a completely different style or colour, to have a little fun and to surprise your family, friends and colleagues. Wigs are available in various colours and styles if you like the idea of being adventurous.

Before I lost my hair I tried my wig. It’s a good thing I did because I didn’t feel like somebody wearing a wig, I felt like someone having fun.

Bengu, discussing wearing a wig

Fitting your wig

This can be an emotional time as you’re forced to face up to the reality of losing your hair. The wig specialists will understand your feelings and will do all they can to make you feel comfortable and at ease 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.

Paying for your wig

In the NHS and Health Service

NHS wigs are free for everyone in Wales. There are special arrangements for patients who are registered with GPs in Wales but have treatment in England.

Some hospitals in England and Scotland may cover the cost of wigs for outpatients receiving chemotherapy. Speak to your healthcare team for more information.

You can also qualify for a free NHS wig if:

  • you’re under 16, or under 19 and in full-time education 
  • you receive a valid war pension and need the items for your war disability 
  • you’re a hospital inpatient when the wig is supplied 
  • your weekly income is low enough 
  • you’re included in an award of: Income Support; the guarantee element of Pension Credit; income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance; income-related Employment and Support Allowance; Universal Credit; or are entitled to, or named on, a valid NHS tax exemption certificate. 

If you’re entitled to a free wig, you’ll 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 don’t qualify for a free wig, you may be able to reclaim the VAT on these items. Contact HMRC on 0300 123 1073 or visit gov.uk

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 phoning the Health Cost advice line on 0845 850 1166. 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. However, 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 don’t qualify for a free wig based on the conditions mentioned here, some hospitals may still provide you with a free wig, or one at a subsidised 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 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.

You can speak to our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 to find out more about Macmillan Grants, and find out what other benefits you might be entitled to.

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:

  • wig departments in department stores, but remember that not all wig departments have a private area where you can try a wig on, so you may want to check this first
  • a wig manufacturer
  • a specialist wig shop.

There’s a list of wig suppliers on our organisation database.

You shouldn’t have to pay VAT (Value Added Tax) on wigs or hairpieces when your hair loss is caused by cancer treatment. However, 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 provide at the time you buy the wig. The tax cannot be claimed back at a later date. For more information, contact HM Revenue & Customs on 0300 123 1073 or visit gov.uk.

‘The NHS wigs weren’t right for my ethnicity so I brought my own. I’ve got a collection and really enjoy wearing them, I can change my appearance when I like.’ Gina


Back to Dealing with hair loss

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