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6 Post-Diagnosis Hair Care Tips from a Hairstylist Who Survived Breast Cancer

Living Well

January 19, 2024

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Photography by Serge Filimonov/Stocksy United

Photography by Serge Filimonov/Stocksy United

by Sarah Garone

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Medically Reviewed by:

Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP

•••••

•••••

by Sarah Garone

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP

•••••

•••••

You may lose your hair during chemotherapy, but there are ways to reduce damage during treatment. A hairstylist shares tips like gentle styling, avoiding hot tools, and trying hair regrowth products as options.

While hair loss isn’t a frequent side effect of breast cancer itself, it’s a common side effect of chemotherapy.

Though losing your tresses isn’t technically dangerous or painful, it can be one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of chemo treatment.

Some folks elect to shave off their hair and go with the chemo flow, while others prefer to preserve their hair as best as possible.

If you’re undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, the decision of what to do with your locks is totally up to you.

Hairdresser Barbi Costanza of Bombshell Hair Design has seen it all — and she’s been there herself. As a survivor of stage three invasive ductal carcinoma, she experienced chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and radiation.

Now fully recovered, she works with breast cancer patients to make the most of their hair care during treatment.

Below, she offers six post-diagnosis tips to tend to your tresses during chemo.

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1. Don’t shampoo too often

Chemotherapy has a tendency to make hair more brittle and fragile. Shampooing too frequently can cause it to fall out at a faster rate. You may want to scale back the number of times per week you wash.

“Depending on the hair type, shampooing two or three times per week is usually sufficient,” Costanza says.

You can also go easy on your hair when washing by using a baby shampoo or other mild shampoo, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Shampoos and conditioners with built-in sunscreen may be useful to prevent sun damage to your scalp as your hair thins.

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2. Avoid using hot tools

Just like washing too frequently, using hot tools like curling irons, blow dryers, and straighteners can pull out hair you’d prefer to hang onto. Plus, with more of your scalp exposed, it’s easier to accidentally burn yourself when using these tools.

For now, leave the styling irons and dryers in the bathroom cabinet. If some of your hair really needs redirection — like a cowlick or a rogue curl — try wetting individual areas and combing through them gently with a large-tooth comb.

3. Style with a large-tooth comb

Don’t put that comb away yet! The spaced-out tines are just the thing for smoothing your hair without tugging it out.

“If you keep some hair, I suggest using a large-tooth comb to manage it,” Costanza says. “The less pulling or tension, the better.”

Densely bristled brushes and fine combs may only worsen hair loss.

As you comb and style, gentle strokes are key. Tugging at stubborn tangles can pull precious strands off your scalp.

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4. Ask your doctor about medication for hair loss

Some medications are specially formulated to boost hair regrowth and may be useful after your treatment is complete. Costanza suggests talking with your doctor about minoxidil, more commonly known as Rogaine.

“This will not prevent hair loss, but it may speed up regrowth after treatment is finished,” she says.

According to 2019 research, minoxidil is currently only FDA-approved as a treatment for androgenetic alopecia, or female pattern baldness, but many doctors prescribe it off-label for hair loss caused by chemo.

The medication works by dilating blood vessels. It may open potassium channels that may stimulate the growth of hair cells, though it’s not fully understood.

5. Hold off on color

You’ll look great with that trendy shade of copper blonde, or mermaid hair — but now’s not the time to try it out.

It’s best not to dabble in anything that adds extra chemicals to your system. Besides, the process of coloring can easily tug hair out.

When your chemotherapy has concluded, and you’re experiencing some hair regrowth, Costanza advises exercising some patience.

“I suggest waiting to color or chemically treat the new hair for several months, as the new hair will be fragile at first,” she says.

It may also take some time to discover exactly how chemo has affected your hair. Some people find their color and texture are altered for several months or even years post-chemo. You may want to get a sense of how your natural hair looks and feels before you decide to make dramatic changes.

Then again, if having a new-to-you hair color or texture is distressing, talk with your stylist about what tweaks you can make. They may recommend a gentle, wash-out color or a tinted shampoo or conditioner.

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6. Consider cold capping

Some people who undergo chemo for breast cancer try cold capping, a procedure intended to minimize hair loss.

“Cold capping, or scalp hypothermia, involves wearing an ice cap before, during, and/or after chemotherapy treatments. This constricts the blood vessels to prevent hair loss,” Costanza says.

She adds that she’s seen clients retain about half their hair when using this technique.

The American Cancer Society backs up Costanza’s observations with research that shows that at least half of the women using cold capping devices lost less than half of their hair during chemotherapy.

Other 2019 research showed that 26% of people who used cold capping during chemo had no hair loss, compared with 0% in a control group.

Though cold capping may not work for everyone, Costanza says it can be worth a try for hanging onto your hair.

Bottom line

Whatever your journey with chemo hair loss, how you choose to manage it is up to you.

The techniques above may help you maintain fuller hair for longer, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best even while undergoing treatment.

Medically reviewed on January 19, 2024

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About the author

Sarah Garone

Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.

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