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Hair Loss and Chemotherapy

Can Hair Loss Be Prevented During Chemotherapy?

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Updated April 09, 2014

Hair loss can be a devastating side effect of chemotherapy. It is often the most dreaded result of chemotherapy and can have a strong emotional impact on the patient.

Why Does Hair Loss Occur During Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy drugs work by eliminating cancer cells that rapidly multiply. There are other cells in the body, like hair follicle cells, that multiply just as quickly. Unfortunately, chemotherapy drugs may not be able to discern the two, attacking healthy cells, thus causing hair loss.

Can Hair Loss Be Prevented During Chemotherapy?

Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy. There are a few methods that are currently being studied, such as scalp cooling and minoxidil (Rogaine).

Scalp cooling is thought to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy sessions by cooling the temperature of the scalp. Cooling is achieved by wearing a cooling cap, ice packs, or other cooling methods. Some scalp cooling studies have found some success, however, many patients found the caps gave them headaches and were uncomfortable.

Some patients turn to products like minoxidil to prevent chemotherapy-induced hair loss, but find little success. Minoxidil has been found to have little effect on preventing hair loss during chemotherapy.

Preparing to Lose Your Hair to Chemotherapy

  • Buy a wig. Purchasing a wig before hair loss is ideal because it allows you to choose a wig that matches your hair color best, and you will have it on hand right when hair loss starts. You may want to consider buying at least two wigs, so one can be worn while another is being washed or styled.

  • Cut hair short. Many men and women opt to cut hair short or shave their heads before hair starts to fall out. It is much less shocking to have short clumps of hair fall out in the shower or in your hands than a handful of long strands. Plus, hair often comes out in uneven patches, and short hair can help temporarily mask this.

  • Go hat shopping. Even if you buy a wig, you will need some type of head covering for when you are not wearing a wig, especially in cold weather. Your scalp may be sensitive when not covered, not to mention cold. Scarves and hats also provide excellent protection from the sun and wind.

  • See a cosmetologist. Because chemotherapy can cause hair loss all over the body, some people consult with a cosmetologist about what to do when eyebrows and eyelashes are lost. A cosmetologist can teach you how to draw in eyebrows with makeup and use false eyelashes.

  • Stock up on sunscreen. If you venture outdoors without covering your head and your hair has fallen out, you will need to wear sunscreen to prevent sunburns. An already-sensitive scalp combined with a sunburn can be extremely uncomfortable.

Caring for Your Scalp During Chemotherapy

Shampoos and Conditioners: If your hair is starting to thin, use a mild shampoo that is gentle on the scalp and on the hair. Doctors often recommend baby shampoo for those undergoing chemotherapy. It is gentle and cleans the hair well.

You may want to consider shampooing less frequently, such as every 3 to 5 days instead of everyday, to prevent possible scalp irritation from lathering the shampoo. In between washings, a "no-rinse" shampoo can be used.

Styling Products: If your hair is thinning or you don't suffer from complete hair loss, feel free to use styling products. You may want to consider using less amounts to make shampooing easier. Products that are labeled "light hold" may be easier to wash out than others.

Perms and Hair Color: Due to possible scalp irritation, perms and hair coloring are not recommended. Perming is also not recommended for those who do not suffer from hair loss to chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can still affect the follicles without causing hair loss, making the hair unpredictable to color and perming. The end result is usually sections of the hair being resistant to the perming solution and other sections being extremely vulnerable.

Hair Regrowth After Chemotherapy

How long it takes to grow back varies from person to person. Hair may start to grow back while still undergoing chemotherapy or after treatment has ended. Many people report seeing hair growth around four to six weeks after the end of treatment.

When hair does grow back, it may be a different texture or possibly a different color than it was before you started treatment. For example, if you had straight hair, it may grow back in curly. Some people also find that their hair grows in gray and then a few months later returns to their natural color.

As your hair grows, continue to use a gentle shampoo and conditioner. For the first six months you may want to hold off on having chemical processes like perms or hair coloring because your hair is still fragile and scalp is very sensitive. Using a hair dryer or curling/straightening iron may also cause damage.

Sources:

Grevelman, E.G., W. P. M. Breed. "Prevention of chemotherapy-induced hair loss by scalp cooling ." Annals of Oncology 16(3) 10 Jan 2005 352-358. 21 Jan 2007.

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