How to Care For and Style Your Chemo Curls

Chemotherapy can cause a number of side effects. While not the most serious of side effects, hair loss can certainly be one of the most distressing. It is important to note that not all types of chemo cause hair loss.

Cancer survivor with chemo curls
Silvia Jansen / Getty Images

Chemotherapy may also affect hair regrowth. Toward the end of treatment or soon after you have completed your last round of chemotherapy, 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 take measures to help prevent hair loss, such as scalp cooling (applying cold temperatures to your head in order to narrow blood vessels and prevent hair loss). Even with these efforts, some hair loss usually occurs, and changes with regrowth are possible.

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 your usual hair tools and styling products, it's important to know that your post-chemo hair requires a bit more care. This article will explore how chemotherapy can affect your hair, plus offer tips on how to care for and style your chemo curls after treatment.

How Chemo Affects Hair Regrowth

The chemotherapy drugs that cause hair loss affect the roots of your hair. They continue to affect the formation of the hair shaft after treatment because the drugs remain in your system for some time. Your skin and fingernails also will take 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 comes back, 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 curly, coarse, or even fine like baby hair. Often, it is very curly, hence the name "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, your hair will return to your pretreatment color and curl level.

Some people trim away the new growth as it comes in over the next year. 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 it may take a long time to get long curls. Some people with long hair note that their chemo curls last for five 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. Doing research may help you determine how mild and appropriate a product may be for your hair.

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

Helpful tips:

  • Massage your scalp with shampoo 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 had it in the past.
  • Avoid using very hot water because your scalp may be tender.
  • Apply a conditioner. Evenly distribute by applying a quarter-sized drop to palms and rub together. Gently apply in a front-to-back wiping motion.
  • Consider using a gentle, 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 hair dryer, use the lowest setting possible. 
  • Forceful brushing and combing are damaging to all types of hair, especially brittle chemo curls. If your chemo curls snarl easily, using a "wet brush" detangler can be very helpful to remove tangles, and also more comfortable.
  • If you want to tame your curls, consider using hot rollers instead of a curling iron. These are much less damaging to hair than a curling iron and may even tame chemo curls even better.

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

  • Use styling products (if you must) that offer light hold, as these are easy to wash out and won't make your hair look artificial. 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 a hard-and-fast rule. If your color is making you feel less healthy, you can color your hair right away.

If you do color or perm earlier than the 3-inch stage, know that your hair may become damaged more easily. If your scalp is still tender, wait for it to recover.

If you want a perm, for now you'll have to settle for the largest curlers and a body wave solution that has a shorter processing time. 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 semipermanent colors or temporary hair colors from the drugstore.

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'd like.

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 1-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 3 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 enjoy longer styles, chemo curls may last several years, or until you cut off the growth that occurred just after chemo.

Summary

Certain chemotherapy treatments can present a number of side effects that cause changes to your body. These may include hair loss and change in texture, color, and volume once it returns. Experiencing changed hair regrowth can take some getting used to. Your chemo curls are temporary. They typically grow out with time, and the texture and color will return to its normal state eventually.

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 their hair for others with cancer, as a way of giving back.

Whether you cut off your curls or keep them, look at them as a silver lining. It's another mark of your survival, after all. Try out a new look. You may find that it's fun to have new hair and a new look after chemo.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does chemo cause hair loss?

    Chemotherapy works throughout the body by targeting rapidly dividing cancer cells. Sometimes, other types of rapidly dividing cells can be affected by the treatment, like hair and skin cells. This is why chemo can cause side effects, including hair loss.

  • Do chemo curls go away?

    Eventually, yes. Total hair regrowth may take up to 12 months. Your hair texture should return to normal with time.

  • Why does hair go curly after chemo?

    Hair regrowth typically begins about one to three months following your last chemotherapy treatment. In that time it may come back different than usual, often thinner or of a different texture. Many notice their hair initially comes in curlier than normal.

  • Does hair grow back gray after chemo?

    It may. Again, hair regrowth can cause a number of unusual changes to your hair, including its color. Hair should return to its natural color with time. It's best to avoid dyes and chemical solutions for at least three months after completing treatment.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Freites-Martinez A, Shapiro J, Goldfarb S, et al. Hair disorders in patients with cancer. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;80(5):1179-1196. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2018.03.055

  2. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Hair loss and your cancer treatment.

  3. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Hair loss or alopecia.

Originally written by
Pam Stephan
Pam Stephan is a breast cancer survivor.
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