Cancer and hair loss

Some cancer treatments can make your hair fall out, but wigs, cold caps and other products are available to help you cope.

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.

Cancer treatment: coping with hair loss during chemotherapy

Hair loss is a potential side effect of chemotherapy. Jessica, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, talks about her experience with chemotherapy and describes how the hair loss affected her. Also, an expert gives advice on how to cope with hair loss and where to find support.

Media last reviewed: 19/07/2016

Next review due: 19/07/2019

Page last reviewed: 03/12/2015

Next review due: 03/12/2017

Ratings

How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 48 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating

Services near you

Find addresses, phone numbers and websites for services near you

Wigs and fabric supports

Find out if you're entitled to free NHS wigs and fabric supports and how to claim any refunds

Young people and cancer

Find out about the cancers that are more common in the 19 to 24 age group, and where young people can choose to be treated

Cancer and social care

If you have cancer, your first priority is medical care. But there are people who can help with other aspects of your life

Living with cancer

Information on living with cancer, including treatment, support and different personal experiences of cancer

Healthy eating

Information on how to achieve a balanced diet, tips to help you get your 5 A DAY, plus advice for vegetarians