Caring for Chemo Curls

Treat Your New Hair Gently & Enjoy Your Curls

Chemotherapy comes with a multitude of side effects. Not only does chemotherapy cause hair loss, but it also affects hair regrowth. Toward the end of treatment or soon after, hair will start to come back. But when it returns, the texture and color may be completely different from your original hair.

When post-chemo hair is very curly, it's referred to as chemo curls. If you've been wearing a wig or head wraps, you're probably eager to show off your new hair.

But before you whip out the hair tools and styling products, it's important to know that your post-chemo hair requires a bit more care. Here's everything you need to know about how to take care of your chemo curls:

What to Do When You've Got Chemo Curls

Chemotherapy drugs affect the roots of your hair and continue to affect the formation of the hair shaft because the drugs remain in your system for some time after treatment. Your hair, skin and fingernails will take some time to recover as the toxins leave your body.

When your new hair comes in, it may be different from your natural hair at first. This is due to the loss or change of pigment and may result in hair that is white, gray or another color different from your natural hair. As your body recovers and hair pigment rebounds, your hair may return to its original color or a color close to your pre-chemo hair.

Expect a change in hair texture as well.

It may initially be kinky, curly, coarse or even fine like baby hair. This initial chemo hair can be trimmed away as it grows out over the next 6 to 12 months after treatment. Give yourself time to recover. Meanwhile, treat your new hair gently.

How to Care for Chemo Curls

Your new hair may feel like it just got a really bad perm, and it makes sense to treat it that way.

Use a very mild shampoo. Try baby shampoo or products formulated for dry, damaged hair. While shampooing your chemo curls, massage your scalp to increase circulation to your roots and remove any dry, flaky skin. Avoid using very hot water because your scalp may be tender.

After shampooing apply a conditioner. Put a quarter-sized drop of conditioner in your palm and rub your hands together. Cup your hands over your hair and gently apply the conditioner in a front-to-back wiping motion. This will evenly distribute the conditioner. Dry your hair by blotting with a thick, absorbent towel or by using the lowest heat setting on your hair dryer.

Take care when styling your new hair. Vigorous brushing, combing and pinning is damaging to all types of hair, especially brittle chemo curls. Put away your curling and straightening irons - for now. The heat can burn your tender scalp. Use styling products that offer light hold, as these are easy to wash out and won't make your hair look plasticky, and opt for water-based products whenever you can. They're healthy for your hair and the environment!

Hair Coloring & Permanent Waves

When my hair was growing back after chemo, my stylist waited until my hair was 3 inches long before doing anything chemical to it.

Before hair reaches that magic number, it's very difficult to style and manage. If your scalp is still tender, do yourself a favor and wait for it to recover. Then consult a professional hair stylist who can help with coloring and permanent waves.

If you want a perm, you'll have to settle for the largest curlers and a body wave solution that has a shorter processing time for the time being. Small, tight curlers and harsh chemicals can break your brittle strands and even cause new hair to fall out.

As for hair color and bleach, wait until your hair has grown beyond the chemo curl stage before you use any permanent dyes or harsh chemicals to color your hair.

In the meantime, try wash-in semipermanent colors or temporary hair colors from the drugstore. Because they aren't meant to last very long, they're relatively gentle o brittle, dry chemo curls. Your hair stylist may also be able to add in a few highlights or lowlights if you want your hair to have a little something extra while it grows out.

Cutting Off Chemo Curls

If you are simply running out of patience with your chemo curls, try a 1-inch buzz cut. Before you book an appointment with your hair stylist, know that the hair closest to your scalp may still be curly, even if you use products like mousse or gel to straighten it.

It's best to wait until your hair has grown out at least 3 inches. Then it's safe to ask your hair stylist to trim the ends. This will get rid of the most brittle, dry hair. You may even like to get the ends trimmed once a month or every other month until your hair returns to its normal texture.

In 6 to 12 months most of your chemo curls will be gone and you'll be free to try new styles with your short hair. Enjoy your new hair. It's another mark of your survival, after all.

See Also


Chemotherapy Hair Loss. Zoe Draelos, M.D. and Mike Mahoney, AHLC Executive Director. American Hair Loss Council

Hair Loss. American Cancer Society. Revised: 12/09/2005.

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