Hair loss is a significant part of going through cancer treatment, and to the outside world, baldness is often the most noticeable outward sign that someone has cancer. Everyone handles this change differently — for some women, it’s a devastating and painful loss, while others may discover that being bald is empowering.
But there’s even more to it than that. There’s also an awkward grow-in phase when treatment is over that only patients who have been through it know well.
When I was completing my treatment for ovarian cancer three years ago, I learned firsthand that hair doesn’t grow back evenly — it comes back in uneven tufts — and the awkward phase of regrowth, during which one’s hairstyle could be considered a “mullet,” lasts a long time.
What I discovered: While there’s nothing that makes the process of losing your hair and growing it back easy, there are products that can help make it less difficult.
Here’s what cancer survivors who’ve gone through this themselves recommend for each phase of the hair loss and regrowth process.
Sleeping caps aren’t just for Little Women and Little House on the Prairie. What you may not realize until you’re bald is that your bare, exposed head might get chilly overnight. (On the flip side, you might get very hot overnight due to hot flashes from surgically or medically induced menopause, or as a side effect of the steroids administered with chemo.)
Even if you opt to go bald or wear wigs when you’re out, it can be nice to have a soft, comfortable cap to wear around the house or while you’re sleeping. Founded by a breast cancer survivor and her daughter, Headcovers Unlimited designs products with the special needs of those experiencing baldness from chemotherapy or other medical conditions in mind — and as a result, the materials they use are incredibly soft, as not to be uncomfortable or irritate a delicate scalp.
If you want a more fashionable cap option but don’t want to go through the complication of learning how to tie a headscarf, try a turban. A top-knot option from StyleEsteem, founded by breast cancer survivor Sonya Keshwani, creates the look of a headscarf, without the effort. This two-tone turban can be dressed up or down, and there are a range of other styles and designs available, from tie-dye to satin to animal print.
It’s common knowledge that chemo causes you to lose the hair on your head. What’s less talked about is that you can also lose some or all of your eyebrows and eyelashes. While some women might want to consider semi-permanent options for filling in eyebrows, like microblading or mircroshading, these types of procedures could come with serious risks. “There is a concern for not only allergic reactions but even more so skin infections when patients are potentially immunocompromised,” says Elizabeth Comen, MD, medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) researcher.
A temporary, noninvasive, at-home option like the Muah Makeup Precision Brow Pencil is the safest bet, says Melissa Berry, 50, is a New Jersey–based, BRCA1-positive breast cancer survivor, who is also host of the podcast Dear Cancer, I’m Beautiful, and founder of Cancer Fashionista, an online style and beauty resource for those going through cancer treatment and beyond. The Muah pencil is one of her favorites because the micro-precision pencil makes it easy to create natural-looking brows, she says. It lasts for up to 10 hours and is available in five different shades.
If you’re not ready to try freehand-drawing your brows back in, you could use eyebrow stencils to help create the shape, like a set from brow experts Anastasia Beverly Hills. And if you need some visual guidance, watch a quick “Eyebrows 101 for Chemotherapy” YouTube tutorial by breast cancer survivor Toni Rissmann.
In the interest of keeping it simple when you have enough hair to wash but it’s still pretty minimal, using one co-washing product instead of a separate shampoo and conditioner is an easy and efficient option. One option recommended to me when I was going through this phase by Sam Brocato, founder of a salon by the same name is a cleansing conditioner by Together Beauty called Wash & Co.
When hair starts growing back, it often happens in uneven patches. (I called it my “baby chicky fuzz” phase.) Many women find that their hair is a different texture than it previously was when it grows back after chemo — you may have seen this phenomenon described as “chemo curls.”
I had so little hair at first that I didn’t need to use a styling product at all for a while, and when I finally had enough hair to “style,” I didn’t need a lot of product to do the job.
My stylist recommended another Together Beauty product, Whatever Wherever, which is a leave-in conditioner but does double duty as a light-hold styling product. Whatever Wherever was the only styling product I needed for the first year or so of regrowth, and it kept my curls well-maintained and under control.
Growing your hair back after chemo is full of milestones. For me, the first one was when I was able to fit my side-swept bangs into a little barrette — more specifically, a rhinestone-studded bobby pin. A friend gave me a four-pack of rhinestone bobby pins (similar sets can be found on Amazon), and it was my favorite hair accessory to use during early regrowth, through the awkward phase, and beyond. Bobby pins are great for when you don’t have enough hair to fit into a larger barrette, and the rhinestones elevated this style beyond plain bobby pins and made it feel more stylish.
The Awkward Phase
LUS Brands 3-Step System Gentle & Moisturizing Shampoo, Hydrating & Detangling Conditioner, and All-in-One Styler, $45
Hair, when it comes back in, is often a different texture than before. One product that’s good for curls: LUS Brands shampoo, conditioner, and all-in-one styler. The shampoo and conditioner are designed for all curl types, and the styling product comes in three different formulations — for wavy, curly, and kinky-coily hair. If you’re unsure which one to get, you can take a brief curl quiz on their website and they will recommend a line for you. They offer their shampoo, conditioner, and styling product in a three-in-one bundle. You can also purchase their products individually, and if you’re sensitive to scents, they offer a fragrance-free line as well.
Megan Harris, 31, a breast cancer survivor, hairstylist, and owner of Crown Beauty Bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, went from straight hair to curly after chemo. She got through the awkward phase with, “lots and lots of headbands!” she says. This versatile six-piece set from Amazon was her go-to. Harris recommends the solid-colored velvet headbands studded with faux pearls. These headbands also come in a set of polka-dot and animal-print ones for a more casual or edgier look. Harris created an Instagram reel showing how she styled her must-have hair accessories, including these headbands, while growing out her hair after chemo.
Scünci No-Damage Stretch Nylon Elastics in Assorted Widths, $4.89 and Conair Color-Match Bobby Pins, $4.85
I found that basic hair elastics and hair-colored bobby pins were crucial staples to have on hand for the times when you need to get creative, or wrangle an uncooperative lock of hair into place. For example, my favorite hairstyle during the awkward phase of regrowth was baby pigtails on top of my head. But this left out chunks of hair that weren’t long enough to fit into pigtails, and that I had to secure into a third ponytail holder at the back of my head and with bobby pins on the sides. I have gray hair so I got silver bobby pins to blend in, and you can find bobby pins to match your hair color for a similarly stealth approach until your hair is long enough to fit into updos without a lot of extra help — and it will be!
While the awkward phase feels like it lasts forever, one day it will be behind you and your hair will grow back into an actual style that won’t require any accessories to wrangle.