Chemotherapy and hair loss – should you shave your hair?
If you’re about to start chemotherapy, you might be worried about losing your hair. This will not always happen but it can help to think about how you will cope if it does. Some people choose to shave their hair. Some prefer to get a short haircut. Others opt for hats and scarves. Whatever you decide is right for you is fine. Here are some tips on shaving, plus some of your other options.
Does chemotherapy cause hair loss?
Chemotherapy is the cancer treatment most likely to cause hair loss. This can be on your head but also underarm, leg and sometimes pubic hair.
Having chemotherapy does not always mean you will lose your hair. Some chemotherapy drugs do not cause hair loss at all. Others only cause slight thinning.
You can ask your healthcare team whether your treatment is likely to cause hair loss.
How long into chemotherapy does hair loss happen?
Hair loss from chemotherapy normally starts within 2-3 weeks of treatment. If you do start to lose your hair, it is usually a gradual process. Your hair should grow back once you finish treatment.
Will I lose all my hair or will it just thin?
How much hair you lose will often depend on what type of chemotherapy drug you have. Some cause complete hair loss. Others cause mild thinning or partial hair loss. Some do not cause hair loss at all.
How much hair loss you have can also depend on other things like:
- If you have the treatment by mouth or via an injection or drip
- How sensitive you are to the drug
- What treatment you have had in the past
You might be able to wear a cold cap during some types of chemotherapy. This can help to reduce hair loss by reducing blood flow to the scalp. But this can only be used with some types of treatment and not all hospitals offer it.
Shaving your hair for chemotherapy
It is up to you if you want to shave your head or not. Think about what is going to be best for you. It can help to talk to your healthcare team to find out whether your treatment is likely to cause hair loss before deciding.
If you are unsure about fully shaving your head, you can opt for a short cut. This can help to make some hair loss less obvious.
Some people find shaving their head helps them to feel more in control. You might even be able to get your friends and family involved. Members of your football team, class or your work mates might want to shave their heads alongside you. They can do to this to feel more connected to you or even to fundraise.
When should you shave your hair for chemotherapy?
There is no right or wrong time to shave your head during cancer treatment. Some people shave their heads early to avoid the distress of seeing their hair fall out. Others decide to wait until they see how severe their hair loss is.
Hair loss from chemotherapy usually takes a while so you do not need to rush.
How to prepare for shaving your hair
Before you shave your hair, it is a good idea to think about what happens next. Will you want to wear a wig or a headscarf? How will you care for your scalp?
You might want to buy a hat to protect your head from the cold or the sun. If you want to wear a wig, it is a good idea to visit a specialist before you shave. This will help them match your hair colour, texture and style.
You might find it helpful to cut your hair shorter in stages before your treatment starts. This can help you get used to seeing yourself with less hair.
How to shave your hair
Make sure your hair is clean, dry and tangle free before you start shaving. You should not use a blade on your scalp. This can cause irritation and risks infection.
If you are unsure, visit a salon which specialises in styling people with cancer.
How to care for a shaved head
You need to protect your scalp from the sun when you have a shaved head. Wear sunscreen with a high SPF and protect your head using hats or other coverings.
If your scalp feels dry or itchy you can use unperfumed oils or moisturisers like Epaderm, Hydromol or Doublebase. You can also try moisturising liquids like aqueous cream or Oilatum instead of soap.
You may feel the cold more once you have shaved your head. Some people like to wear a soft hat in bed and thicker hats when outside.
Hear from Matilda who decided to shave her hair
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Alternatives to shaving your hair
If you decide not to shave your head, there are other options to help you cope with hair loss. These include wigs, make up and head coverings.
You can also do things to help you cope with the emotional impact of hair loss. Some people like to wear a hairnet at night to avoid waking up to hair on the pillow.
If you have lost facial hair, you might find it helpful to use products like eyeliners, false eyelashes or eyebrow tattoos. Read more about coping with loss of facial hair here.
A specialist hairdresser can help you choose a new style which disguises your hair loss. My New Hair has a salon finder for hairdressers which specialise in wigs and medical hair loss.
Tips for looking after your hair
It is important to look after your hair before and during cancer treatment. Read our top tips for looking after your hair here.
If you decide to get a wig, it can help to visit a specialist before you start treatment. This will help them match your hair colour, texture and style. Or, you might decide to choose a new look and get a wig in a style you’ve always wanted to try.
There are two main types of wigs – synthetic and real hair. Real hair wigs last longer but are much more expensive. You can get free synthetic wigs from the NHS if you:
- Are under 16
- Are 19 or under and in full-time education
- Are a hospital inpatient
- Get Universal Credit, Income Support or Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Have an NHS tax credit exemption certificate
- Are named on a valid HC2 certificate
Little Princesses Trust provides free real-hair wigs to children and young adults in the UK up to the age of 24. Find out more here or call 01432 760060.
If you do not want to wear a wig or shave there are still lots of options. Hats, scarves and turbans are all popular choices. Materials like cotton, lightweight wool or blends are often best as they are easy to tie and breathable.
Some hats, bandanas and headbands have fringe or hair attachments. Which option you go for depends on your own style. Bandanas for the Brave offers free bandanas for children and young people with cancer.
How to tie scarves for chemo hair loss
There are lots of different ways to tie bandanas and head scarves. Macmillan Cancer Support has step-by-step guides and videos here. If you want to get creative, there are some great tutorials on video channels like YouTube which make it easy to follow along.
Hair loss recovery after chemotherapy
Your hair should grow back once your treatment is over. This tends to be within 3 to 6 months. Most people’s hair fully recovers within 6 to 12 months.
You might notice some changes in your hair after chemotherapy. Your hair is likely to be softer. It might be curlier or a different colour.
If you have had very high doses of certain chemotherapy drugs your hair might take longer to grow back. It is rare for any hair loss to be permanent.
If you are worried, speak to your healthcare team.
How we can support you
Young Lives vs Cancer is here to support you with every aspect of your cancer treatment.
- Check out our tips on looking after your hair here
- Get more information on dealing with body image and cancer treatment here
You can also chat to one of our expert social care team via Live Chat, by emailing email@example.com or by calling 0300 303 5220. The social care team is available from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday.
If hair loss is affecting your mental health, we have a list of contacts who can help here.