Chemotherapy is a life-saving medication used for cancer treatment. However, it can wreak havoc on your body. Patients undergoing cancer treatments experience a wide range of side effects, but one of the most obvious is hair loss.
Hair loss from chemotherapy, also known as chemotherapy-induced alopecia, affects the hair on your body as well as all other body hair including your eyelashes, eyebrows, facial hair, armpit hair, and pubic hair. So as well as being highly noticeable, it’s also distressing for many cancer patients to watch their hair fall out.
So what can you do about hair loss after chemo? In this article, you’ll learn:
Cancer is caused by malignant cells in the body that divide and spread uncontrollably through your body . Cancer cells multiply, which is why it’s easier to treat if it’s caught early as 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 disrupt the normal hair growth cycle and cause alopecia . 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 alkylating agents can impact stem cells, causing permanent hair loss even after chemotherapy treatment has finished .
Cold caps are the most common way to prevent hair loss during treatment. This scalp-cooling method involves wearing a cold gel-filled cap placed over the head during chemotherapy treatment.
By applying cold pressure to the scalp, the cap forces your blood vessels to narrow, reducing blood flow to the scalp and thus preventing the chemotherapy drugs from reaching your hair roots.
It should be noted that 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 . While this is higher than in those who didn’t use a cold cap (0%), the experience can be uncomfortable. Therefore, 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 hair regrowth after chemo treatment.
In most cases, baldness caused by chemotherapy treatments is not permanent. One study found that hair regrew in 99.9% of breast cancer patients .
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 new hair growth.
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 phases of how hair grows:
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 .
Learn more in our hair transplant growth chart
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.
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.
You can avoid causing further damage to your scalp and hair follicles by properly caring for them during treatment. Make sure that when you go out, take or wear some sort of protection for the scalp such as sunscreen, a hat, or a scarf.
Additionally, it’s important to keep your scalp well moisturised and as healthy as possible for when hair regrowth begins. This means protecting your head from extreme elements such as harsh cold temperatures and direct UV radiation from the sun.
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.
Our diets have a huge impact not only on our overall health but also on our hair health. Although diet can not control hair loss as a result of chemotherapy, eating well and ensuring you are taking in enough protein, vitamins, and minerals may help you reduce the amount of hair loss and the speed at which it grows back.
Learn more about diet and hair loss:
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 your treatment has ended [6-7].
One study found that using Minoxidil reduced the average period of baldness to just over 50 days which is 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 . 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.
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. Meaning, if all your hair is gone, then none of your follicles are producing hair in their current positions. Therefore, 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 can 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 at one of clinic locations.
Simply fill in your details in the form below and we'll get in touch with you shortly.