How to Care for and Style Your Chemo Curls

cancer survivor with chemo curls
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Chemotherapy comes with a multitude of side effects. While not the most serious of side effects, hair loss can certainly be one of the most distressing.

And not only does chemotherapy cause hair loss, but it also affects hair regrowth. Toward the end of treatment or soon after you have completed your last chemotherapy infusion, your hair will start to come back. But when it returns, the texture and color may be completely different from your original hair.

This is true even if you use measures designed to help prevent hair loss such as scalp cooling. Even with these measures some hair loss usually occurs, and consequently, the typical changes with regrowth are noted.

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.

How Chemotherapy Affects Hair Regrowth

The chemotherapy drugs that cause hair loss 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. In fact, since hair growth is often slower after chemotherapy, increased pigment may be picked up and your hair may then grow in darker than before chemotherapy.

Expect a change in hair texture as well. Your hair may initially be kinky, curly, coarse or even fine like baby hair. Often, however, it is very curly, hence the designation "chemo curls."

How Long It Takes Hair to Go Back to Normal

The initial chemo hair you grow usually reverts back to normal over a period of 6 to 12 months, but sometimes longer. Eventually, however, your hair will usually return to your pre-treatment color and curl level—unless you are like most women who don't really what that was!

Some people trim the "different growth" away as it regrows over the next year, though others enjoy the chance to experience curls or a new color. You don't need to cut away that growth if it gives you a sense of moving past treatment. Whatever is best is whatever feels best to you. 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. It's common to experience dandruff at this point, even if you never have in the past. 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. Some people like to use a "leave in place for 30 minutes" type of conditioner every week or so, such as those designed for damaged hair.

Dry your hair by blotting with a thick, absorbent towel. If you must use a hair dryer, use the lowest setting possible. 

Take care when styling your new hair. Vigorous brushing and combing are damaging to all types of hair, especially brittle chemo curls. If your chemo curls snarl easily, using a "wet brush" can be very helpful, and also more comfortable. Some people find that using a wet brush and brushing a good conditioner through their hair in the shower reduces the tangles related to curlier hair.

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 and Permanent Waves After Chemotherapy

There isn't really a set time to wait before having a perm or color, but it's often recommended that you wait until your hair is at least three inches long. Keep in mind that this is not the "law" and if your color is making you feel less healthy rather than more healthy, you can color your hair right away. If you do color or perm earlier than the three-inch stage, keep in mind your hair may become damaged more easily. If your scalp is still tender, do yourself a favor and wait for it to recover.

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, try to 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 semi-permanent colors or temporary hair colors from the drugstore. One step products, such as Nice and Easy, may be easier on your hair than two or three step treatments. Because wash-in colors aren't meant to last very long, they're relatively gentle on 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 Your Chemo Curls

If you are simply running out of patience with your chemo curls, try a one-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 three 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.

The Bottom Line

You may find that the care you use for your chemo curls results in healthier hair when your hair returns to normal. Have fun with it. Some people enjoy growing it long (there is no age limit) and then donating hair for others with cancer as a way of giving back. Whether you cut off your curls or keep them, take a look at your hair, and see if you can reframe whatever you choose into a silver lining.

Try out a new look. Oncologists speak of the "new normal" people experience after cancer. You may find that it's fun to have new hair and a new look after chemo.

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Article Sources
  • Kumar, Vinay, Abul K. Abbas, and Jon C. Aster. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. Philadelphia: Elsevier-Saunders, 2015. Print.
  • Trueb, R. Chemotherapy-Induced Hair Loss. Skin Therapy Letters. 2010. 15(7):5-7.