How to Care for and Style Your Chemo Curls

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.

Cancer survivor with chemo curls
Silvia Jansen / Getty Images

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.

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 Chemo 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 that is 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. Your hair may initially be kinky, curly, coarse or even fine like baby hair. Often, it is very curly, hence the designation "chemo curls."

How Long Until Hair Returns to Normal

The initial chemo hair you grow usually reverts back to normal over a period of six to 12 months, but sometimes this takes much longer. Eventually, however, your hair will usually return to your pre-treatment color and curl level.

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 feels best to you is best for you. Give yourself time to recover. Meanwhile, treat your new hair gently. If you choose to grow your hair out (as some people do once they have the chance), keep in mind that these measures will need to be continued for some time, and some people with long hair note that their chemo curls last for 5 years or more.

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. Just because a shampoo is labeled as "mild," however, does not mean it is harmless.

The Environmental Working Group has a site (Skin Deep) where you can check on the safety (and mildness) of many personal care products. This can also help you find products that are less likely to contain the endocrine disrupting chemicals that have now been associated with breast cancer.

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 deep, leave-in 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 hairdryer, 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.

Avoid curling and straightening irons for now. The heat can burn your tender scalp.

If you want to tame your curls as with a curling iron, consider using hot rollers instead. These are much less damaging to hair than a curling iron, and can sometimes tame chemo curls even better.

Use styling products (if you must) 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.

Coloring and Perms After Chemo

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 3 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 3-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 hairstylist 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.

If you do choose to color or perm, try out a conditioner that you leave on your hair for several minutes before washing it out (sometimes called a hair mask). This may minimize the damage, and you can even leave the conditioner on while you take time to shave your legs—something that you will also likely return to after chemo is done.

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 hairstylist, 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 hairstylist 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.

If you keep your hair short, in six to 12 months most of your chemo curls will be gone and you'll be free to try new styles with your short hair. For those who opt for longer styles, chemo curls may last several years, or until you cut off the growth that occurred just after chemo.

Enjoy your new hair. It's another mark of your survival, after all.

A Word From Verywell

There's usually plenty of time to enjoy your new chemo curls, as they may last for a few years (depending on how long you grow your hair and when you cut it). Many people find that they enjoy their curls. In time, however, your hair will likely return to its previous texture.

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 and then donating hair for others with cancer as a way of giving back.

Whether you cut off your curls or keep them, see them as 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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  3. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Hair loss or alopecia. Updated August 2018.