Hair Loss (Alopecia) From Radiation Therapy

Author: Courtney Misher, MPH, BS R.T.(T)
Last Reviewed: July 18, 2022

Radiation affects cancer cells and healthy cells. This includes the cells that make hair grow. This can lead to hair loss (alopecia). There is nothing you can do to prevent hair loss when getting radiation therapy. There are ways to manage hair loss.

Will radiation therapy cause me to lose all my hair?

Radiation therapy will only cause hair loss to the area of the body that is being treated, often just where the beam is entering the body. Hair loss can also happen in the area where the radiation beam exits the body.

For example, if your arm were treated with radiation, you may lose your hair on your arm, but the hair on your head would not be affected. The amount of hair loss will depend on a few factors, including:

  • The size of the area being treated.
  • The total dose of radiation being given.
  • The type of radiation being given.

Hair loss can start 1-3 weeks after treatment starts. If you are also receiving chemotherapy, you should ask your provider if the medications you are receiving cause hair loss. Some chemotherapy drugs also can cause hair loss. When hair loss is caused by chemotherapy, it will include all the hair on your body (head, eyebrows, body hair, etc.). Learn more about hair loss caused by chemotherapy.

Is the hair loss permanent?

Hair loss caused by radiation therapy is not often permanent. Your provider can talk to you about if your hair loss should be temporary or permanent. If your hair loss is temporary, it will start to grow back after treatment is finished.

When regrowth occurs, there may be changes in texture and color. It is common for hair to grow back curlier than it was. Less common, hair will grow back a different color.

How can I manage hair loss?

Hair loss can be a difficult side effect to deal with. There is no right or wrong way to manage hair loss. It's important to do what you feel comfortable with and what is right for you. If you are expected to lose the hair on your head during your cancer treatments, the following tips may be helpful.

Prior to hair loss:

  • Be gentle. Use a soft-bristle brush and a mild shampoo. Pat your hair dry.
  • Don’t use heat. Don't use hair dryers, hot rollers, straightening irons, or curling irons because they may damage your hair and make hair loss more severe.
  • Avoid chemicals. Don't bleach or color your hair, and don't get a permanent (perm).

When hair loss starts:

  • Cut your hair. If your hair is long, cutting it shorter may help decrease the impact of your hair loss when it occurs.
  • Shave your head. It may be easier to deal with hair loss by shaving your head before hair loss occurs.
  • Protect your head. Wear a hat, scarf, or sunscreen to prevent sun exposure on sunny days- and not just in the summer months! Sleep on a satin pillowcase to decrease friction.

Should I get a wig?

Deciding whether to get a wig is a personal choice. Not everyone is comfortable wearing a wig. You should do what is comfortable for you. If you decide not to get a wig you could consider scarves, turbans, and hats, which can be cooler and require less care than a wig.

If you decide that you want to purchase a wig you can make an appointment with a wig stylist. You will want to choose a wig that is comfortable and adjustable.

Learn more about wig selection and care and caring for your hair, skin, and nails during cancer treatment.

National Cancer Institute. Hair Loss (Alopecia) and Cancer Treatment. 2020.

Cancer.Net. Hair Loss or Alopecia. 2020.

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