Hair loss is one of the most visible side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy treatment. The timing and extent of hair loss can be unpredictable and this uncertainty can be unsettling. As a result, many patients choose to be proactive and shave their heads. This Mend Together guide explains why some choose to shave their heads, how to shave your head, and ways to make this traumatic experience less stressful.
Should you shave your head before chemo?
You may find it easier to cope with hair loss if you skip over the stage where your hair begins to fall out in clumps. Having a lack of control over when and where you lose hair adds to the ambiguity surrounding cancer. Shaving your head proactively allows you to take control of this process and can help reduce anxiety.
Mend Together’s Founder, Lisa Lefebvre, experienced hair loss both ways. She shaved her head during her first treatment and waited to see if she would experience hair loss during her second treatment. She recommends shaving your head proactively. Here’s what she had to say about the experience:
“During my first chemo protocol, it was 100% certain that I would lose my hair. My partner bought a pair of cordless clippers and took us on a weekend trip to the shore. He shaved my hair off on the beach, and the long locks blew away into the ocean. It was a kind and loving gesture that made the event less harrowing. Ironically, when he took me to dinner at a local restaurant, the waiter balked at serving us because we were an interracial couple and I looked like a ‘skinhead.’
“During another chemo protocol, it was less certain — although likely — that I would lose my hair. I took a wait-and-see approach that time — a bad decision. My hair began falling out in the middle of a meeting at Mercedes-Benz; a clump fell out when I brushed my hair out of my face. I tried to rearrange my hair, and another large clump fell out. It was hard for me and it was hard for my colleagues, even though they were incredibly understanding. I personally would always choose to be proactive and shave my head at the place and time of my choosing.”
When to shave (or not)
If you decide to shave your head during chemo, you do not need to do so before treatment begins. You can shave your head after your first chemotherapy treatment, when your scalp begins tingling (a tell-tale sign hair loss is imminent), or when you first begin to notice hair falling out.
If you do not want to shave your head, you may want to cut your long hair short. Short hair falling out may be less jarring to witness and easier to disguise.
Create an Account
Join one of our free, unique Support Communities for patients, caregivers, friends, and family
How to shave your head during chemo
Borrow a pair of clippers and use a #2 attachment to get a “buzz cut,” which will leave just enough length to prevent ingrown hair. Patches and uneven regrowth will not be as obvious when your hair is this short as well. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can ask your stylist to shave your head.
If your hair is long, you may want to save it and donate it to an organization that creates wigs for patients, like Hair We Share. You may find it meaningful that your hair will be worn as a wig by someone in need. You may also want to turn your own hair into a wig.
After you shave your head, you may notice uneven skin tone due to sun exposure or damage.
“After I lost my hair, my head literally looked like a globe with patches of water and land,” says Lisa. “I had dark brown spots where my scalp had been exposed. I even had a long stripe on the top of my head where I normally parted my hair. Where it hadn’t been exposed, it was stark white — and I mean really white. I had to use tanning lotion to even things out. It actually worked out pretty well.”
Ideas for shaving your head during chemo
Some find it empowering to take control over some aspects of their bodies after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Turning shaving your head into a meaningful event is one way to do that. Here are four ideas you can consider:
- Involve friends and family. Ask friends and family to participate in the head-shaving process by helping you prepare to shave your head. Each person can take a turn cutting off a section of hair. This may be especially meaningful to children, creating a positive memory for them during a difficult occasion.
- Hold a fundraiser. Use the moment to shine a light on your cancer diagnosis or showcase an organization dedicated to research or assisting others with cancer. Ask for donations as you count down to the day you plan to shave your head.
- Throw a party. A head-shaving party can turn a comber event into a memorable one. This also gives loved ones who have expressed a desire to shave their heads in solidarity a chance to do so right alongside you. This can be done at home, or you can ask a salon to reserve its space, especially for you and your guests.
How do you take care of a bald head during chemo?
- Keep it covered. The skin on your scalp is newly exposed to the elements. Protect this delicate skin by wearing soft scarves, caps, or hats. Consider Mend Together’s versatile sleeping caps, fashionable hats, and turbans to give you several options.
“I never found a stylish hat I liked when I was bald,” says Lisa. “Instead, I walked around in a ski hat, which wasn’t my first choice, especially when I was at work. I wish I had known about these hats when I was in recovery.”
- Moisturize your scalp. Cancer treatment can cause dry skin, which can feel uncomfortable, and your scalp is no exception. Apply moisturizer to your head just like you would apply it to your hands or arms. We recommend this ultra-hydrating moisturizer, which helps your skin stay hydrated and uses natural ingredients to introduce more moisture to your skin.
Seeking extra support
As you prepare for changes to your body during cancer treatment, Mend Together is there. Our Gift & Donation Registry allows you to customize the list of items you find most helpful during treatment, including warm beanies to protect your newly-bare scalp and hair regrowth products to try once chemotherapy ends. Our Community Journal lets you update friends and family in one place and is a great way to share your head-shaving experience with inquiring loved ones, while our Volunteer Calendar enables friends and family to step in and offer support when it’s needed most. Visit Mend Together to explore our resources and create an account for free.
Stella Morrison is an award-winning journalist who partners with mission-driven companies to share their stories. She is based in New York City.
Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.