Managing Treatments

Chemotherapy Hair Loss: How Cold Caps Can Help

Cold caps are a newer treatment for chemotherapy hair loss. They are designed to help reduce hair loss and make that aspect of cancer treatment less stressful.

When you go through chemotherapy, you’ll have many concerns, with hair loss being a big one. Since chemotherapy doesn’t differentiate between cancer cells and other living cells, chemotherapy hair loss is a valid worry and is often the most visible side effect of cancer treatment. There’s good news, though, on that front. Cold caps are a relatively new way to combat cancer treatment side effects. Many women have been successfully using cold caps to prevent at least some chemotherapy hair loss.

Here are some frequently asked questions about them and what you need to know.

What Are Cold Caps?

Cold caps are gel-filled plastic hats that look a bit like swim caps. They’re worn shortly before, during and shortly after chemotherapy treatment. Most of the cap brands have a gel layer inside, which is frozen from minus 15 to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The caps might be changed a few times during treatment as the gel warms, though some systems, like DigniCap, doesn’t need to be changed during treatment because it’s connected to a cooling system while you wear it. This is the only cold cap system approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with approval given in December 2015.

How Do Cold Caps Work?

It’s thought that cold caps work by reducing the blood flow in the scalp. The coldness restricts the blood vessels, which means that less chemotherapy enters the skull, according to the American Cancer Society. The cold temperature also makes the hair follicles less active. Chemotherapy drugs focus on rapidly dividing cells. If the hair follicles aren’t as active, the chemo medications won’t target those cells as strongly, which may result in less hair loss.

Will Cold Caps Prevent All Hair Loss?

You may still experience hair loss or hair thinning while using cold caps. The caps are still being developed and tested, but there are a number of factors that might determine how well they prevent chemotherapy hair loss, according to the American Cancer Society. The factors include the type of chemotherapy used, the dose, how well the cap fits (the closer the fit, the less hair loss) and your hair thickness. The cooling effects might be more effective with thinner hair, since the coldness reaches the scalp more easily.

Are There Any Downsides to Using Cold Caps?

As you can imagine, with something so cold on your head for a prolonged period, the cold caps might be uncomfortable. Some patients get headaches while wearing them and need to bundle up to stay warm. Some doctors are concerned that the cold caps restrict the chemotherapy from killing any cancer cells in the skull, but more studies are needed.

How Do I Start Using Cold Caps?

Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of using cold caps given your specific circumstances. The cost will depend on who makes the cold cap, how much chemotherapy you need and how long you need the cap for. Insurance sometimes covers the cost. You can rent the stand-alone cap systems or use DigniCap equipment if your hospital has it. The cold cap company websites are a good starting place to learn more about using and renting them.

The Rapunzel Project, a nonprofit organization founded to help women avoid chemotherapy hair loss, is also a great resource if you’re interested in this treatment.

Deborah Abrams Kaplan
Deborah Abrams Kaplan