Hair loss from cancer treatment can affect people in different ways. Some treatments cause only partial hair loss or thinning, while others cause people to lose hair from all over their body.
Different types of chemotherapy drugs have varying effects, while radiotherapy causes hair loss only in the area where treatment is focused. Your doctor can advise you about what to expect.
Planning for hair loss
If you would like to wear a wig, you may find it helpful to visit a wig specialist before your cancer treatment to help match your hair colour and style.
"I started to lose my hair, so I shaved it off and wore a wig," says patient Daphne Tallett. "A good tip is to get your hairdresser to style the wig on you. Nobody could even tell I was wearing one."
Cutting your hair
Some people are more comfortable cutting their hair very short before undergoing therapy. This means that hair loss will not seem as dramatic when it happens.
Cold caps during chemotherapy
A cold cap is a hat that is worn during some chemotherapy treatments. Its cooling effect reduces blood flow to the scalp, which also reduces the amount of chemotherapy medication that reaches this area. This helps to prevent hair loss.
It's usually worn for 15 minutes before each chemotherapy treatment. You can find out about scalp cooling caps on the Macmillan website.
Eyebrows, eyelashes and make-up
With some chemotherapies, people might also lose their eyebrows and eyelashes. Make-up, eyebrow pencil, eyeliner or false eyelashes can help, and many cancer support groups have workshops to help patients learn these techniques.
Find cancer support services near you.
Types of wig
There are two main types of wig – synthetic and real hair. Synthetic wigs are created from man-made fibres, last for six to nine months and cost £50 to £200. Wigs made from real hair last for up to three or four years and cost £200 to £2,000.
Help with the cost of wigs
You can get free synthetic wigs on the NHS if:
- you're under 16, or you are 19 or under and in full-time education
- you're a hospital inpatient
- you or your partner are getting Universal Credit, Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance or the guarantee credit of Pension Credit
- you have an NHS tax credit exemption certificate
- you are named on a valid HC2 certificate
Read more about help with the cost of wigs and the NHS Low Income Scheme.
Cancer Research UK has more information on getting a wig on the NHS.
Cancer and hair loss if you're black or from an ethnic minority
If you're a black or minority ethnic patient with hair loss, you may need to find a wig that suits you from a specialist wig store. "Your nurse or specialist can tell you where you can find suppliers," advises Vivienne Townsend from Cancer Black Care.
"Some hospitals will let you choose a supplier for your wig elsewhere, though there are companies already working with the NHS for black and minority patients," she says.
Other cancer hair loss options
Alternatives to wigs include hairpieces and fringes that work alongside headwear, such as scarves.
Roisin Furlong of Breast Cancer Care says: "We hold demonstration stock of many types that people can try out, to find what they like. We can then let them know where they can get it.
"We give eyebrow and eyelash advice, too. We work with the NHS wig service, and we give women options. Treatment can take over your life, so it's great to have choice where you can."
Download a Breast Cancer Care leaflet about breast cancer and hair loss (PDF, 3.6Mb).
The Healthtalk website has videos and articles about coping with chemotherapy.
Find out about other side effects of chemotherapy.