One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss. Chemotherapy attacks all rapidly-dividing cells, both cancerous and healthy, which means hair is particularly vulnerable to the treatment.
It’s important to protect your hair before, during, and after your treatment. This month's guest blogger, Dr. Don Grant, breaks down what happens to your hair during chemotherapy, and provides some advice on how you can mitigate your hair loss and improve growth following treatment.
Chemotherapy hair loss prevention & protection
Before starting chemotherapy, it’s worth taking steps to protect your hair. While it’s not possible to prevent losing hair through chemotherapy outright, it is possible to reduce, or at least mitigate, the impact of chemotherapy on your hair through adequate preparation beforehand.
Start by cutting out damaging hair treatments, such as hair dye or bleaching. These contain harmful chemicals that weaken the hair, which in turn makes it more prone to damage during chemotherapy.
Similarly, you should stop or reduce your use of hair irons for the same reason. This damages the hair and makes it more prone to long-term damage.
As well as reducing harmful haircare practices, you should also take steps to strengthen your hair. Using a good shampoo and conditioner is a good start — opt for a gentle product designed for sensitive scalps or dry hair. Baby shampoo is also a good alternative that keeps your hair in good condition.
The food you eat plays an important role in the strength of your hair too. Opt for foods rich in protein, such as chicken, turkey, eggs, legumes, and fish. This prevents your hair from becoming dry and brittle.
Iron, too, is a good nutrient that prevents natural hair loss. Eat red meats, lentils, spinach, and other leafy greens to maintain healthy iron levels.
Vitamins A, C, and E are also vital for healthy hair growth and development. Vitamins A and C are often found in orange or yellow vegetables (such as carrots) and in fruits such as blackcurrants, oranges, strawberries, and broccoli, respectively.
Intense sunlight also damages your hair. It’s important to cover your hair when leaving the house, especially during summer — a light shawl or hat will suffice.
While you can’t prevent hair loss entirely, you can ease yourself into the concept of it early on. Loss of hair as a result of chemotherapy can be emotionally distressing for some, especially if they have long hair already.
As such, it’s worth taking steps early on to make the idea feel more palatable. Opting for a shorter cut helps you feel accustomed to the idea of having shorter hair. It also often looks thicker than long hair, and pixie cuts especially are good at giving the impression of denser hair.
Ways to prevent hair loss during chemotherapy
During chemotherapy, you will need to adopt a new, dedicated hair care routine that protects your hair. It is crucial that you are as gentle as possible to your hair during this period.
Start by ditching tough hairbrushes and opting for brushes with softer bristles. Again, baby brushes are a good option here, as they are specially designed for delicate scalps.
It’s also worth cutting out conditioner during your hair care routine too. These are often excessively oily, and can put pressure on your hair follicles. If you do choose to use conditioner, find a milder option and use it sparingly.
Washing your hair less frequently can also help protect your hair during chemotherapy. You likely know already that regular hair washing can dry out or damage your hair, and the same applies when undergoing chemotherapy too. Once or twice a week will suffice.
Caring for your scalp is especially important during chemotherapy. Continue to stay out of the sun, and strive to never leave the house without something covering your hair. Choose a soft, light covering such a shawl to prevent further damage to your hair from the weight or pressure.
During chemotherapy, hair loss can make your scalp irritable and itchy. Aloe Vera has soothing properties that can protect the hair follicle and reduce itching too. Massage it lightly into your scalp in small circles to relieve irritation.
Alternatively, many cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy choose to avoid this irritation by shaving their heads entirely before undergoing treatment. Some wear wigs — there are plenty of realistic options available — while others choose to embrace their shaved head.
Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice — opt for what makes you feel comfortable.
Hair regrowth after chemotherapy
Once you’ve completed your course of chemotherapy, your hair will slowly start to regrow, albeit not at the pace it did before. During the first 2-3 weeks following the end of your chemotherapy, your hair will slowly grow into a soft fuzz, similar in texture to a baby’s.
After a month, your hair will be growing at its previous rate. By the two-month mark, you’ll have roughly an inch of hair. It’s worth noting that while your hair will grow at its normal pace, it might not necessarily be the same colour or texture as it was before.
Many people find their hair is curlier or thicker than it was previously. In some cases, it is a different colour entirely, which might come as a surprise if you previously dyed your hair.
During this period of hair growth following chemotherapy, it is vital that you maintain your hair care routine. Continue to use soft brushes and mild hair care products during the first few months following completion of your treatment, and wash it no more than 2-3 times per week. This will aid hair growth and recovery during these vital months.
Why does chemotherapy cause hair loss?
Chemotherapy is designed to target any cells that divide quickly. While this is intended to attack and impede the growth of cancer cells, healthy cells are also included in this net.
Hair follicles are collections of cells in the skin that contain blood vessels and produce hair. They are also among the fastest-growing cells in the human body. Consequently, they are particularly vulnerable to chemotherapy.
Different types of chemotherapy affect different areas of hair. Some only impact your head hair, while other types affect eyebrows, eyelashes, arm or leg hair, and even pubic hair. This is further affected by complementary drugs used during your treatment.
Chemotherapy can be a distressing experience in itself, and hair loss only exacerbates that. However, while this can’t be prevented entirely, it can be mitigated somewhat with the advice above. With suitable care before, during, and after treatment, you can help your hair grow back to its former quality.
About the author: Dr Don Grant (MB, ChB, DRCOG, MRCGP, Dip.orth.med) is the clinical lead at The Independent Pharmacy, one of the UK’s leading independent online pharmacies. For more healthcare and treatment advice, visit their website.