If you’re facing hair loss or thinning hair because your treatment for breast cancer includes chemotherapy, whole brain radiation, or tamoxifen, you may be curious about trying out a wig.
Wigs can conceal hair loss and — depending on the style, length, and color you choose — help you look more like you did before treatment or provide a whole new look. They can also protect your scalp from the sun and from cold air.
Many women find that wearing a wig gives them a sense of normalcy and consistency during cancer treatment. A wig can also provide some privacy in that it may prevent people from asking questions about your appearance and diagnosis. Some like to experiment and have fun with different wig styles and colors, or to alternate wearing a wig and other head coverings, such as hats, turbans, or scarves.
Not sure if a wig is right for you or where to begin looking for one? On this page, you can learn about where to buy a wig or get one for free, how to choose one that suits you, how to care for a wig, and more.
How to prepare for a wig
If you think you might want to get a wig, it’s helpful to take some steps to prepare before you start chemotherapy or another treatment that may cause hair loss. For example:
- Find or take a couple of pictures of your preferred hairstyle. This will make it easier to find a wig that’s closest to your color, length, and style if you decide that’s what you want.
- Cut your hair short. It’s less traumatic to lose short clumps of hair than long ones, and it’s easier to fit a wig over less hair. Also, if you get used to short hair, you won’t have to wait as long while your hair is growing back to feel like yourself.
Consider picking out a wig before you start a treatment that can cause hair loss. You’ll have more energy, and you can get used to wearing the wig in trial sessions, alternating with your own hair.
Where to get a wig
How do you find a wig? There are a number of options:
- At a wig shop. You can get recommendations for local wig shops or specialists through breast cancer organizations, your hospital’s cancer center, or through your hairdresser. Some wig specialists come to your home to provide additional privacy.
- Online. Like most things nowadays, you can shop for a wig online. Online retailers have a large selection of wigs in every color, length, and style. Some offer consultations over the phone or via email to help you find the right style for you. This can also be a good option if you’d prefer more privacy when selecting your wig.
- Through a charity program. Instead of shopping for a wig (and possibly getting reimbursed for some or all of the cost through your health insurance company), you may want to look into getting a wig for free through programs of the American Cancer Society or other nonprofit organizations (see “Covering the cost of a wig” below for more info).
Wherever you decide to shop for a wig, be sure to find out about return and exchange policies in advance. You may want to try on several wigs at home and return some of them, or you may decide after trying some on that you don’t want to opt for a wig at all. So, it’s useful to know if there will be restocking fees or other limitations on returns.
Covering the cost of a wig
Many health insurance companies cover part or all of the cost of the wig if your doctor writes a prescription. A wig is, after all, a remedy for a treatment side effect, just as important as medication you take to treat nausea. Here are the steps to take if you want to try to get your insurance to pay for your wig:
- Before purchasing a wig, call your health insurance company and ask if they will cover a “cranial prosthesis” for hair loss related to chemotherapy or radiation therapy. If so, ask what is the maximum cost they will cover, what paperwork you will need to submit your claim (including details on what the prescription from your doctor needs to say), and how long it will take to get reimbursed.
- In most cases, you will have to pay for your wig upfront and then get reimbursed after you submit a claim to your insurance company. Typically, you’ll need to send your insurance company a prescription from your doctor for a “cranial prosthesis” or a “hair prosthesis” (with a cancer diagnosis code), the receipt for the wig (with the wig company’s tax ID number), and a completed insurance claim form. Some wig providers and hospital centers will handle the insurance claim for you and won’t require you to pay upfront.
- Keep a copy of your receipt if you end up paying for all or part of your wig out of pocket. It might be a medical expense that you can take as a tax deduction.
If you don’t have coverage or would prefer not to go through the process of filing an insurance claim, keep in mind that the American Cancer Society and a number of other organizations offer free or reduced cost wigs to people undergoing cancer treatment. You can find out about options for getting a free wig by searching online, contacting your local chapter of the American Cancer Society, or contacting the social workers at your local cancer center.
Choosing a wig
Here’s how to select a wig that fits well, is high quality, and suits you:
- First, measure your head with a cloth measuring tape to determine your “cap size.” This video shows how:
- Decide if you’d like a wig that’s similar in color and style to your own hair, or if you want a different look. You may want to get two wigs: one that’s more like your current hair and one that’s a fun new length, color, and/or style.
- Consider choosing a color that is somewhat lighter than your own hair. Your skin color may be off during chemotherapy — grayish, greenish, or yellowish. Less contrast is generally more flattering, and won’t call attention to your complexion.
- Determine if you want a wig that’s made out of a synthetic fiber, human hair, or a mixture of both. Most women choose synthetic wigs. They look and feel good, need very little attention and care, and are moderately priced ($30 to $500). A wig made of real human hair could cost between $800 and $3,000, or more, and it requires more care than you give your own hair. Watch this video to learn more about the differences between human hair wigs and synthetic hair wigs:
- Go for the best-quality, most natural-looking wig you can afford. Key features that make a wig look realistic are a lace front and a monofilament part or top. In a lace front wig, each hair in the front of the wig is individually tied to a sheer material, creating the appearance of a natural hairline. Monofilament tops or parts make the top of the wig look realistic and are made by tying or sewing the hair in sections into the top portion of the cap, which is made from a fine, sheer material.
Putting on your wig
Follow these steps to put on your wig and get a good fit:
- If you have natural hair of any length, you’ll need to keep it as smooth and flat as possible by pinning it down and by wearing a nylon or mesh wig cap under your wig. Even if you don’t have hair, you should in most cases wear a wig cap because it will keep the wig secure, absorb sweat, and protect your scalp from irritation. Some women choose to wear a wig band instead of or in addition to a wig cap. A wig band is similar to a head band and it doesn’t adhere to the wig but helps to keep it in place.
- Adjust the velcro tabs located in the back of the wig to get the best fit.
- Tilt your head forward. Using both hands, put the front of the wig at your hairline and then pull the wig on using a front to back motion. Use the ear tabs (near your temples) to help center the wig.
For step by step instructions on how to put on your wig, watch this video:
Caring for your wig
With proper care and storage, a synthetic wig should last for 3 to 5 months and a human hair wig should last 9 months to a year of daily wear. Here’s how to keep your wig looking good for as long as possible:
- Wash and condition your wig after every 8 to 10 wears. This video demonstrates how to wash and dry a synthetic wig and a human hair wig:
- Give your wig “time off” on occasion by using a turban, scarf, or hat.
- If you have a standard synthetic wig, keep it away from intense heat — for example, from an oven, grill, outdoor heater, or an open flame — because it could melt. In most cases, you shouldn’t use heated styling tools or a hair dryer on a synthetic wig unless it is labeled “heat friendly” or “heat defiant.”
- If you’d like help with styling, shaping, or cleaning your wig, you can take it to a specialty hairdresser.
- When you’re not wearing your wig, store it on a wig stand in a part of your home that that gets as little sunlight, heat, moisture, and dust as possible. You can make your own wig stand with two 64-ounce plastic soda bottles. Cut them in half, discard the tops, face the cut edges of the bottoms together, and force one inside another to get a football-shaped stand.
Learn more about wigs
You can learn more about wearing and styling wigs in the following articles:
- How to Style a Human Hair Wig
- Tips for Wearing Wigs Every Day
- How to Wear a Wig With Confidence
- What Type of Wig Cap Is Best for You?
- How to Style a Synthetic Wig
- Expert Tips on Wigs and Hair Loss: Community Q&A
Carliz Sotelo Teague, founder of Wigs.com
Melissa Hutchison, American Cancer Society patient navigator at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA