Many people having chemotherapy worry about hair loss (alopecia). Whether you lose your hair will depend on the drugs prescribed. Some people lose all their hair quickly; others may lose only a little hair or none at all. Although losing hair from the head is most common, you may find your eyebrows and eyelashes fall out, and you may lose hair from your underarms, legs, chest, beard and pubic area.
Learn more about:
What to expect
When hair loss does occur, it usually starts 2–3 weeks after the first treatment. Before and while your hair is falling out, your scalp may feel hot, itchy, tender or tingly. Some people find that the skin on their head is extra sensitive, and they may develop pimples on their scalp. After chemotherapy ends, it takes 4–12 months to grow back a full head of hair. When your hair first grows back, it may be a different colour or curly (even if you have always had straight hair). In time, your hair usually returns to its original condition.
Many people find losing their hair difficult. Hair loss can affect your self-confidence and make you feel sad or vulnerable. For many people, it’s a public sign of the cancer diagnosis. It may help to talk to your treatment team about how you feel.
Some treatment centres provide cold caps, which may reduce head hair loss. Cold caps can only be used with certain drugs and some types of cancer, and they don’t always stop hair loss.
Worn while chemotherapy is being given, the cap is attached to a cooling unit. This reduces blood flow and the amount of chemotherapy drug that reaches the scalp. Some people find the cold cap uncomfortable, and the cold temperature may be painful. If you are interested in trying a cold cap, ask your treatment centre if it is an option for you.
Ways to manage hair loss
- Keep your hair and scalp very clean. Use a mild shampoo like baby shampoo. If you want to use moisturiser on your head, use sorbolene. Check with your nurse before using any other hair or skin care products on the scalp.
- Comb or brush your hair gently using a wide tooth comb or a hairbrush with soft bristles.
- Explain to family and friends, especially children, that the chemotherapy may make your hair fall out.
- Consider cutting your hair before it falls out. Some people say this gives them a sense of control.
- Wear a wig, hat, turban or scarf, or go bare-headed – whatever feels best to you. If you prefer to leave your head bare, protect it against sunburn and the cold.
- If you plan to wear a wig, choose it before treatment starts so you can match your own hair colour and style. Or consider a new style or colour for a bit of fun.
- Some treatment centres have wig loan services, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information about wig services.
- You could try a silk or satin pillowcase as these smooth fabrics can decrease hair tangles.
- Avoid dyeing your hair during chemotherapy and for about six months afterwards, or consider using vegetable-based dyes.
- If your eyelashes fall out, wear sunglasses outside to protect your eyes from dust and sunlight.
- If your eyebrows fall out, you may wish to wear reusable eyebrow wigs or transfers until your eyebrows grow back.
- Contact Look Good Feel Better on 1800 650 960 – this program helps people manage the appearance-related effects of cancer treatment.
- For more on this, see Hair loss.
Podcast: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis
Prof Timothy Price, Medical Oncologist, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, SA; Graham Borgas, Consumer: Dr Joanna Dewar, Medical Oncologist and Clinical Professor, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and The University of Western Australia, WA; Justin Hargreaves, Medical Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Bendigo Health Cancer Centre, VIC; Angela Kritikos, Senior Oncology Dietitian, Dietetic Department, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Kate Mahon, Director of Medical Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Georgie Pearson, Consumer; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Marissa Ryan, Acting Consultant Pharmacist (Cancer Services), Pharmacy Department, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
Ask a health professional or someone who’s been there, or find a support group or forum
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment