6 things to know about managing and preventing hair loss during chemo.

If you or someone you know is undergoing chemotherapy, chances are it will be one of the most challenging things you will ever have to go through. 

And while some people will experience no side effects, others experience a range - from fatigue to nausea and skin changes. Another common side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss.

For many women, losing their hair is one of the most emotional parts of going through chemotherapy - it's one that many find difficult and distressing.

Watch: Ricky Lake opens up about her struggle with hair loss on the Drew Barrymore Show. Post continues below.

Video via Drew Barrymore Show.

While your hair is the one of the easiest parts of your look to change, it can also be a big part of who you are.

Here, we speak to Dr Connie Diakos, a medical oncologist at GenesisCare and staff specialist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, as she takes us through the key things to know about hair loss during chemotherapy.

Why do you lose your hair during chemotherapy?

The reason behind chemotherapy causes hair loss is that the treatment targets and affects ALL cells in the body - not just the cancer cells. 


"This can include healthy cells, such as hair follicles, which are some of the fastest growing cells in the body, as well as cancer cells," explains Dr Diakos.

However, not everyone will lose their hair during chemotherapy. While it's most common for some people to lose it quickly, others might only lose some of their hair or experience no hair loss at all. 

The extent of hair loss will be different for each woman, and it depends on a few different factors.

"Whether you experience hair loss from chemotherapy, and how severe it is, depends on the treatment you receive, including the dose of chemotherapy, how frequently it is given and for how long, as well as other individual factors."

"In Australia, more than 680,000 chemotherapy sessions occur each year, with up to 65 per cent of those who undergo chemotherapy experiencing hair loss to varying degrees." 

How long does it take for hair to fall out during chemo?

When hair lose does occur, Dr Diakos said it'll usually start to happen within two to three weeks following the chemotherapy treatment. 

Prior to your hair falling out, it is common for your scalp to feel hot, itchy, tender or tingly. Some patients also find their scalp to be quite sensitive during this time. 

"For many women, hair loss can be a very distressing side effect of chemotherapy, leaving many feeling depressed, ashamed, anxious, and with a loss of confidence," said Dr Diakos. 

"This can have impacts on social relationships and sexual relationships, and some women feel this sort of visual change labels them as a 'cancer patient'."


Dr Diakos said the fear of hair loss and the distress it can cause is so significant, some women choose to refuse potentially life-saving chemotherapy treatment to avoid losing their hair.

"However, it’s important to remember there are options to try to reduce hair loss."

How long does it take for hair to grow back after chemo?

It's important to remember that chemo-related hair loss is usually temporary, and your hair will most likely grow back following treatment.

"Once chemotherapy treatment has finished, it can take between four and 12 months for your hair to grow back fully," said Dr Diakos.

Image: Getty 


It's also quite common for your hair to look and feel quite different in texture (new curls!), however Dr Diakos said this is usually only temporary. 

'Initially, your hair may be curlier or a different colour, however, it will usually return to its usual colour and form over time."

Can you prevent hair loss during chemo?

Surprisingly, yes. When it comes to the different options out there to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy, recent advancements in science and technology have made it possible to help prevent hair loss. 

'Scalp cooling' or 'cold caps' are one of the most notable developments in this area.

"The evolution of ‘scalp cooling’ technology in recent years has given many women an effective option in helping to prevent hair loss following chemotherapy treatment."  

"Scalp cooling technology works by lowering scalp temperature before, during and after the administration of chemotherapy. The cooling caps tighten up or constrict blood vessels in the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy reaching the cells of your hair follicles."

Cancer Australia has recently updated their guidelines to recommend scalp cooling technology for patients with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy treatment. 


"While scalp cooling doesn’t work for everyone, next generation technology such as the DigniCap Delta has been shown to reduce hair loss in up to two-thirds of women undergoing chemotherapy." 

Of course, it's best to check in with your doctor first to find out whether a cold cap would be an option for you and whether it's available at your hospital or treatment centre.

"This will ensure you have all the information you need and can be confident you are making informed decisions along the way," said Dr Diakos.

What are some tips for managing hair loss?

Chemotherapy-related hair loss is something that affects different women in different ways. 

Many find the prospect of hair loss distressing and quite difficult to cope with, however it's important to remember that it's perfectly normal to feel this way. 

So, allow yourself to be sad. Mourn the loss of your hair.

"It’s okay to feel upset if you lose some or all of your hair, or even if you are worried about the potential of losing your hair," said Dr Diakos.

And don't be afraid to reach out for help. Whether it's simply joining a Facebook group of women going through a similar thing, or chatting to a professional, family member or friend, creating a conversation about how you're feeling is an important part of processing your hair loss.

Image: Getty 


"Consider joining a local support group and speaking with other women who have had a similar experience to you, who you can relate to. You may also wish to speak to your doctor about what psychological support or counselling services are available to you. And [if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer] don’t forget your breast care nurse, who is an important source of support and information."

Dr Diakos said opting for a shorter haircut ahead of your treatment might also help make the transition a little less daunting.


"Many women decide to cut their hair short or shave their hair ahead of treatment to maintain some control before the hair loss occurs. Shortened hair can also help to manage the scalp itchiness or irritation that can occur during chemotherapy," she said.

For those who might feel self-conscious about losing their hair, having some head covering options on hand - such as wigs and headscarves - can also help.

"Some women find wearing a wig helps them regain some power in deciding when they tell others about their diagnosis, however, try to arrange your wig before treatment so they can best match it to your colour and style."  

"There are also great services available to help you stay in control of your appearance during chemotherapy including the Cancer Council Australia and Look Good Feel Better – use them!" 

What should you do before and after chemotherapy to encourage hair growth?

First? Suss out your options. "Speak to your doctor early about scalp cooling technology and the options that may be available to you during your chemotherapy treatment," suggests Dr Diakos.

While undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Dr Diakos said it may be helpful to consider taking specific care of your hair and head to help encourage hair growth.

Some of these things include:

  • Washing and conditioning your hair every two to four days with fragrance-free shampoo 

  • Rinsing your hair well 

  • Brushing or combing your hair with a soft-bristle brush or wide-tooth comb 

Dr Diakos said it may also be helpful to avoid using:  

  • Heat on your hair 

  • Hair spray, cream or oils 

  • Hair dye  

  • Rubber swimming caps 

"With the significant shift towards a more patient-centred approach to cancer care, it’s important that not only the cancer itself is treated, but that the focus is also on the emotional well-being of individuals throughout all stages of the treatment journey," Dr Diakos adds.

"I believe every woman facing chemotherapy treatment in Australia should be empowered with the choice to try to keep her hair."


Have you or someone you know suffered hair loss due to chemotherapy? Share your experience with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Canva.

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