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Can Chemotherapy Hair Loss Be Treated?

Chemotherapy is a life saving medication — but it can wreak havoc on your body. Chemo patients experience a wide range of side effects, but one of the most obvious is hair loss.

Chemotherapy-related hair loss — also known as chemotherapy-induced alopecia — affects hair all over the body, including your scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, facial hair, armpit hair, and pubic hair. So as well as being highly noticeable, it’s also distressing for many cancer patients.

So what can you do about hair loss after chemo? In this article, you’ll learn:

  • why chemotherapy causes hair loss
  • how to stimulate hair growth after chemotherapy
  • whether you can have a hair transplant after chemotherapy.

Why does chemotherapy cause hair loss?

Cancer is caused by malignant cells in the body that divide and spread uncontrollably through your body [1]. Cancer cells multiply, which is why it’s easier to treat if it’s caught early — these damaging cells haven’t had time to spread yet.

Chemotherapy works by killing cells that multiply rapidly. It doesn’t distinguish between cancerous cells and healthy cells — which is why your hair follicles are affected.

Certain chemo drugs like Doxorubicin disrupts the hair cycle and causes alopecia [2]. It causes blood vessels around the hair follicles to reduce in density, essentially cutting off the blood supply to your hair roots.

While one study showed that this particular drug didn’t impact hair stem cells, another suggests that chemotherapy drugs that contain alkalyting agents can impact stem cells, causing permanent hair loss even after chemotherapy treatment has finished [3].

Can you prevent hair loss during chemotherapy?

Cold caps are the most common way to prevent hair loss during treatment. In this scalp cooling method, a cold gel-filled cap is placed over the head during chemotherapy treatment. By applying cold pressure to the scalp, the cap forces your blood vessels to narrow, preventing the chemotherapy drugs from flowing through these vessels and reaching your hair roots.

But cold caps don’t always work. One study found that just over a quarter of breast cancer patients didn’t experience any hair loss when using a cold cap [4]. While this is higher than in those who didn’t use a cold cap (0%), the experience can be uncomfortable — so you’ll need to weigh up whether it’s worthwhile to try this. The same study also found that wearing a cold cap can help speed up regrowth after chemo treatment.

Is chemotherapy-related hair loss permanent?

In most cases, baldness caused by chemotherapy treatments is not permanent. One study found that hair regrew in 99.9% of breast cancer patients [5]. Once the course of treatment has been completed, your hair will regain normal growth. Before long your locks will return, although this may seem thinner at first.

Occasionally, as a result of high doses of certain drug combinations, hair loss from chemo will be permanent.

While you can’t control whether or not your hair falls out during chemotherapy, keeping your scalp and hair follicles healthy during treatment may improve the speed and thickness of your hair regrowth.

How long will it take for my hair to regrow after chemo?

If your hair loss isn’t permanent, you should start to see regrowth around 3-5 months after your treatment ends. This is due to the hair growth cycle:

hair growth cycle

When you lose hair, your follicles are in the exogen phase. As long as your follicles haven’t stopped producing hair irreversibly (for example, as a result of male pattern baldness or female pattern hair loss), they will return to the anagen (growth) phase. The telogen/exogen phase usually lasts around 3-5 months, which is why it can take this long for your hair to regrow. One study found the average regrowth time following chemo treatment was 3.3 months [5].

Learn more in our hair transplant growth chart.

Haircare tips during chemotherapy treatment

There are many things you can do to ease the strain on your hair during chemotherapy treatments. Being proactive could help you retain more hair throughout your treatment as well as stimulate new growth after treatment.

Cut your hair shorter

Before you begin your treatment, it’s a good idea to get a new haircut that is short and easy to maintain. This will make any hair loss less noticeable. It also avoids putting unnecessary pulling or strain on the hair through ponytails, plaits and other tight hairstyles.

Protect your scalp

You can avoid causing further damage to your scalp and hair follicles by properly caring for them during treatment. Don’t go out without some sort of protection for the scalp – whether that’s sunscreen, a hat or a scarf. Keep your scalp well moisturised and as healthy as possible for when hair regrowth begins. Protecting your head from extreme elements such as harsh cold temperatures and the sun is critical.

Use makeup to disguise facial hair loss

If you have eyebrow hair loss, you can use makeup pencils to fill in your missing brows. You can also use false eyelashes if your eyelashes are affected by chemotherapy treatment.

Eat a balanced diet

Our diets have a huge impact on our hair growth and loss. While you can’t control hair loss as a result of chemotherapy with your diet, eating well and ensuring you are taking in enough protein, vitamins and minerals means you can reduce the amount of hair lost and the speed it grows back.

Learn more about diet and hair loss:

Can you use Minoxidil after chemotherapy?

When your chemo treatment course is over, you’re probably eager to help your hair grow any way you can. While Minoxidil won’t prevent chemo-related hair loss, it may be an effective hair regrowth stimulant after treatment [6-7]. One study found that using Minoxidil reduced the average period of baldness to just over 50 days — less than 2 months in total.

Another study found that Minoxidil delayed hair loss after the start of chemo treatment, and sped up hair regrowth [8]. In total, the period of baldness was cut by 50 days — from 137 (approximately 4.5 months) to 87 (2.9 months).

So if you have temporary alopecia following chemo treatment, Minoxidil can be an effective way to restore your hair while you recover.

Can you have a hair transplant after chemotherapy?

Hair transplants aren’t a good option if your chemo-related hair loss is temporary. In those instances, patience is key — your hair will regrow eventually, though it will take a little time. Even in more persistent cases, hair transplants may not work if your hair loss is due to chemotherapy. That’s because hair transplants rely on using donor hair follicles from elsewhere on your scalp or body. If none of your follicles are producing hair in their current positions, they won’t grow hair elsewhere. Learn more about donor hair for hair transplants.

If you’re struggling with long-term permanent hair loss following a particularly aggressive course of treatment, there may be other treatments that can stimulate hair growth. Other interventions include scalp micropigmentation and drugs like spironolactone, which are also used to treat female pattern hair loss.

Whether you are struggling with hair loss after chemotherapy has ended, or you want to discuss hair restoration options for permanent hair loss, our experienced trichologists can help. Book a free consultation with the Wimpole Clinic team.

Can Chemotherapy Hair Loss Be Treated?, Wimpole Clinic

Sources:

  1. What is cancer? | Cancer Research UK
  2. Chemotherapy Targets the Hair-Follicle Vascular Network but Not the Stem Cells
  3. Priming mobilization of hair follicle stem cells triggers permanent loss of regeneration after alkylating chemotherapy
  4. Efficacy of Scalp Cooling in Preventing and Recovering From Chemotherapy-Induced Alopecia in Breast Cancer Patients: The HOPE Study
  5. A multicenter survey of temporal changes in chemotherapy-induced hair loss in breast cancer patients
  6. The use of minoxidil to attempt to prevent alopecia during chemotherapy for gynecologic malignancies
  7. A randomized trial of minoxidil in chemotherapy-induced alopecia
  8. Cancer-Related Alopecia: From Etiologies to Global Management
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