Hair Loss Due to Chemotherapy: Cause and Coping Ways

Many people take their hair for granted until they are faced with going bald. For those undergoing chemotherapy, this may happen sooner than expected, and is more of a reality. There are both women and men that report side effects such as hair loss, being something they are afraid of when first diagnosed. Hair loss depends on the dose and type of medication you receive.

How Does Chemotherapy Cause Hair Loss?

The drugs involved with chemotherapy are very strong and do their job of attacking rapidly growing cancer cells. The downfall is because they also attack other cells that grow rapidly, such as the ones found in hair roots.

In fact, chemotherapy can cause hair loss all over the body, not only your head. Your armpits, eyelashes, eyebrows and pubic areas may become hairless for a time as well. There are some drugs prescribed that are more likely to cause hair loss, and this can range from thinning to total baldness.

Try not to be shy about speaking to your doctor about the medications you can take. Ask about the side effects and express your concerns.

When Can You Expect Hair Loss with Chemotherapy?

About two to four weeks after treatment starts is when patients tend to see hair loss. It may go gradually, you can see a loss in clumps. Often patients notice loose hair or accumulations on their pillow, their comb, hairbrush, shower drain or sink. The scalp may be tender. It can continue throughout treatment and even a few weeks after. Whether you lose hair or it simply gets thin, depends on your treatment.

Those with cancer see this as one of the most distressing side effects. They report feeling sad when they were reminded of their illness by catching a glimpse of their balding head in the mirror. It can be a reminder of everything they’ve gone through with their illness.

After treatment, it can take a few weeks or more for your hair to start growing and recover. The new growth may be a little different that your previous hair. This is usually a temporary difference. It may be a different color or texture, it may be curlier, straighter or even gray. This can last until the cells are back to functioning normally again. 

How to Manage Hair Loss Due to Chemotherapy

There are those who will recommend you cut your hair short before treatment. This may make your hair appear fuller, and make hair loss a bit less dramatic. It will also take less time for your hair to regrow to this shorter style. Growing your hair to a comparative style can help you move forward through treatment.

Cold Cap Therapy

Covering your head with cold packs before, during and after chemo has been thought to help with hair loss prevention through slowing the drugs movement through the area. The cold will narrow blood vessels in your scalp. This helps prevent the drug reaching follicles. You can find cold caps to rent online. If you are curious about the treatment, speak to your doctor about what’s available.


There are over-the-counter topical medications available, such as minoxidil, that can help with hair loss from targeted therapy or hormonal therapy. It can also work for those whose hair isn’t growing back fully after radiation therapy, stem cell transplant, or chemo. There are some oral medications recommended as well, such as finasteride or spironolactone, which can improve hair growth.

Scalp and Hair Care

Consider the following tips to help with scalp and hair care during treatment.

  • Use gentle, fragrance-free shampoo.
  • Try skipping washing your hair daily and be gentle when washing.
  • Pat your hair, and don’t scrunch or rub with the towel, to avoid damage.
  • Use protection against the sun such as a scarf, hat or sunscreen.
  • Use a wide tooth comb or soft hairbrush.
  • Cover up during the cold as this will help retain body heat.
  • Avoid pulling your hair, blow-drying it or using high-heat.
  • Avoid straightening, curling or using chemicals in your hair.
  • Don’t use a perm or color to treat your hair.
  • Talk with your doctor before starting any hair-growth lotions or creams.
  • Use a soft pillow cover.
  • Talk with your doctor about taking biotin.

Hairpieces and Wigs

Choose a shop that sells hairpieces and wigs for those who have cancer. You can also consider a home appointment or a catalog.

You will have a lot of variety with hairpieces and wigs. If you want something that looks like your similar hair style, choose before your hair starts falling out. This is the best way to get a close match. It can also be a fantastic time to try a new hairstyle. Talk to a hairdresser to get a suggestion on hairpiece or wig.

If you are concerned about the cost, your insurance may cover hairpieces and wigs. They are classified as a tax-deductible expense in specific cases. You may need a prescription, but that will be easy to get. You can also look into free or loaner hairpieces from community organizations and cancer centers. You can ask one of the nurses or oncology worker for tips and resources. Be sure to get it fitted properly by a professional. This will help keep irritation to a minimum.

How to Care for Regrown Hair

When you begin to experience regrowth, it’s important to care for it carefully. New hair can be finer, and easily damaged. Be careful in how you care for it, and your hair will continue to get healthier.

  • Limit washing to once or twice weekly.
  • Massage your scalp to remove dead skin.
  • Use a gentle brush or wide-tooth comb. Use a minimum of curling, pinning, high heat and blow-drying.
  • Avoid hair coloring for at least a few months after your treatment.
  • Avoid straightening or curling your hair with chemical products until fully regrown. Some people suggest waiting for at least a year. Before trying the products again, test them on a small sample of hair.