If you're losing your hair due to chemotherapy, wigs can be an easy and affordable way to take control of your appearance. Some women even end up liking the idea of trying a completely different hairstyle.
Sharon O'Donnell, 51, of Hamilton Township, N.J., tried to keep a sense of humor throughout the experience; she tried a temporary tattoo on her bald head before discovering a new look for herself. "I found out I looked good as a redhead!" she says.
Finding the right wig can be tough, however, especially if you're trying to replicate your natural look. Andrea Cooper, 52, of Phoenix, Md., wore her new wig to pick up her kids at school, and they didn't recognize her. "They walked right past me," Cooper recalls.
If you decide to wear a wig—perhaps alternating it some days with a scarf, a hat, or nothing at all—follow these tips to find the right one for you.
What to look for in a wig
It's a good idea to begin shopping for your wig before you start chemo, so that a stylist can help you match your own color and texture. You also may want to take photos of your current hairstyle, and keep a swatch of your hair from the top of your head as a sample.
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Planning ahead also gives you time to fully explore your options. Synthetic wigs, which cost anywhere from $30 to $500, are the most popular. Women taking this route typically have fewer bad hair days because the wigs retain their style so well. Human-hair wigs, which range from $800 to $3,000, are more durable but require more regular coiffing. You probably won't need your wig for more than a year, so look for the nicest wig you can afford, but don't worry about it lasting forever.
What sort of style do you want?
Celebrity hairstylist Ken Paves, whos designed looks for Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, and Celine Dion, advises that when it comes to wigs, less is often more. A wig that's thick and heavy may look more like a wig, but “for a more natural look, less hair is best,” he says. Paves adds that you may want to buy a wig with extra length so that you can trim and shape it as you like.
Color is a big concern. It can be tough to match your natural hue; go with a wig that's a shade lighter than your own hair because chemo can temporarily dull your skin color. Also, since wigs are typically thicker than your natural hair, they may appear darker than your own shade.
How to pay for a wig
Most health-insurance companies cover at least some of the cost of buying a wig if you obtain a doctor's prescription for a "necessary cranial prosthesis" or a "hair prosthesis."
If that isn't an option, many local American Cancer Society (ACS) chapters give cancer patients free wigs donated by manufacturers and boutiques. Contact your local ACS office or call 1-800-ACS-2345 to see if an office near you participates in this program.
You can also find great prices on wigs, hairpieces, hats, head scarves, and other useful products online through Tender Loving Care (TLC), an affiliate of the ACS. Another ACS partner, Look Good...Feel Better, offers a wealth of information on selecting, styling, and caring for wigs.
Caring for your wig
You may occasionally want to take time off from your wig—both to keep it looking its best and to give your scalp a breather.
You can have it cleaned by a hairdresser during one of these breaks, but it's easy to manage wig upkeep on your own by washing it after every two weeks of wear (depending on the manufacturer's instructions). Sprays and gels are generally fine, but stay away from heat styling tools on synthetic wigs—they can soften the wig's glue and make it lose its shape.
Get a comfy one
Avoid wigs lined in scratchy material; most wigs are made for women with some hair, so this may be tricky. Even if you're careful to wash your scalp with mild shampoo, it may be hypersensitive during treatment, so look for a lightweight, well-ventilated, adjustable wig cap.
A monofilament cap—a thin, soft mesh base into which hairs are knotted by hand—is typically more comfortable and more natural-looking than a standard cap with wefts, in which layers of hair are machine-sewn into the base. While standard caps with wefts are the most affordable, they can feel heavy or itchy.
The right cap or a specialty adhesive grip or pad can also keep your wig from slipping. "I remember going to a square dance with my kids, and all I could think about was, 'Will my wig fall off?'" recalls Cooper, who spent most of the evening with the tip of her finger on the top of her head.