chemo curls
Chemo Curls 101: What they are & How to Care for Them

Chemo Curls 101: What they are & How to Care for Them

Dana Donofree
4 min read

Chemo Curls 101: What They Are And How To Care For Them 

Your hair may have been stick-straight before chemotherapy, but once it began to grow back after treatment, it started looking more like a good hair day in the 80’s! You think to yourself: What in the world is going on here? I didn’t sign up for this!  Welcome to post-chemo curls, and it’s a pretty common phenomenon that cancer patients experience. Read on to discover how chemo affects your hair texture, and how to properly care for and style your new look. 

What Are Chemo Curls?

For some people, hair can grow back as a different color, texture, and thickness after chemotherapy, which can be shocking if you aren’t prepared. Common among this growth is “chemo curls,” which refers to the texture of your hair if it grows back curly after chemotherapy treatment. Chemo curls can occur whether you shaved your head before starting chemo or whether you let your hair fall out during treatment.

Why Does Your Hair Curl After Chemo? 

There are a few theories as to why your hair grows back curly after chemotherapy. One of the prevailing theories lies in how chemotherapy works. This treatment targets all cells that renew quickly in your body in an effort to target the rapidly developing cancer cells. Because hair cells are among the most rapid to develop in your body, they become a target of the chemo treatment as well.

Chemo curls may also be a side effect of chemotherapy leaving your body. These drugs can take several weeks to actually exit your system once your treatment is done, so their active effect on your hair follicles may linger even after you’ve rung the bell.

How Chemotherapy Affects Hair Growth 

Hair regrowth can look different for each person, depending on your estrogen or hormone levels and how they were affected by chemo. Here are some general milestones as to what you can expect as your hair returns.

  • You may see light, fuzzy hair emerge around two to three weeks after chemotherapy. It’s common that this growth will be patchy.
  • Your hair will appear thicker around 1 to 2 months after chemotherapy, and it’ll likely still be patchy.
  • Expect about 1 inch of hair 2 to 3 months after chemotherapy. Most of the hair on your head should be filled in at this point, but you may still have a bald patch or two.
  • By the 6 month mark after chemotherapy, your hair will likely be a few inches long. At this point, the hair will cover bald patches, or the patches will fill in. Finally!
  • About one year after chemotherapy, you can expect several more inches of hair growth.

How To Care For Your Chemo Curls 

The best way to care for your new curls is to embrace them! But if you’ve always had stick-straight or wavy hair, caring for curls may be a whole new experience for you. Here are a few tips for protecting your chemo curls:

  • Use a light, mild shampoo. Look for shampoos that are specifically made for dry and damaged hair, or you can try baby shampoo. In addition, opt for a sulfate-free shampoo to best protect your still-sensitive scalp. 
  • Use a leave-in conditioner. Depending on how damaged your hair feels, use a leave-in conditioner once or twice a week. This is best for keeping your curls hydrated.
  • Detangle with a wet brush. Your new curls may tend to tangle. Try brushing your hair in the shower using a wet brush that’s super effective for detangling your hair. This also ensures that your chosen conditioner is evenly distributed throughout your hair.
  • Air-day your hair. Heat will damage any kind of hair, but it’s especially brutal on new regrowth after chemotherapy. Instead of using a blow dryer or a flat iron, use an absorbent towel or a large cotton t-shirt to blot your hair. This gently dries your hair and helps minimize damage.

How To Style Your Chemo Curls 

The best way to style your new curls is to work with them, not against them. Straighteners are not only going to damage your hair, but they may contribute to frizz -- not to mention, heat can hurt your still-sensitive scalp. A few ways to style your curls include: 

  • Use coconut oil. One of the holy grails for curly hair is coconut oil. This will add much-needed hydration to your hair while making your hair look healthy, bouncy, and luscious. 
  • Style with mousses, gels, and curl creams. After showering, use a styling gel or cream to lock in moisture and set your curls for the day, keeping your whole look neat without introducing any heat.
  • Invest in hair accessories. Headbands, big clips, and barrettes are all making a comeback. These are all great tools for keeping your chemo curls under control and adding a little style to your look. 
  • Get a haircut. I know what you’re thinking: “But I want my hair to grow, why would I cut it?” It may seem counterintuitive, but regularly trimming your hair is key to managing your new hair. Haircuts keep your new hair healthy and they encourage your hair to grow at a fast, even rate. This is especially prudent after chemo because your hair may grow more in the back than the front, and a haircut can even out your new growth.
  • Avoid hair dye. It’s best to avoid hair dye after chemo because of your scalp sensitivity. If you want to dye your hair, speak with your medical team to find out when it’s safe for you to use hair dye again.

Embracing Your New Chemo Curl Look

One of the biggest challenges that comes with a cancer diagnosis is learning to love -- or at least live with -- your changing body, whether that’s a different head of hair or a surgery that changes your appearance. Celebrating and uplifting these changes, whether by dressing for your new body or embracing your chemo curls, can be a helpful and meaningful step for those who underwent chemo. While these curls may or may not last, it’s a beautiful reminder of your inner strength and healing.

Dana Donofree
Dana Donofree

Founder and CEO of AnaOno. After a diagnosis of breast cancer in her late 20’s, Dana took her own lived experience and fashion design background and (re)designed intimates for those that have undergone breast surgery. Dana’s story has been published around the world in outlets like New York Times, BBC, Huffington Post, The Today Show, and more.