To Wig or Not to Wig: What You Need to Know

As a hair and make-up artist in Los Angeles, Jan P. thought she knew everything she needed to about cosmetic enhancements. But when Jan, 51, was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer five years ago, she faced the same issue that confronts many women who’ve just learned they need to undergo chemotherapy. To wig or not to wig?

“I understood that losing my hair through medical treatment was the trade-off for saving my life,” says Jan. “But most people don’t realize the impact of the loss of hair can have on one’s self-image.” In the end, Jan felt that wearing a wig was akin to hiding something and she opted to go bald.

But if you do want hair to get you through this rough time, how do you wade through all your options?

“Buying a wig can be overwhelming at a time when women’s emotions are typically at an all-time high” says Sherry Brooks, a wig fitter and licensed cosmetologist at MCGHealth Cancer Center, part of Georgia Health Sciences University, in Augusta. “The good thing is your hair will grow back. But in the meantime, your wig should be comfortable and fit properly.

How to make the right choice:
  1. Go for a wig-fitting before your hair falls out. When Brooks sees a woman’s natural color, length and style, it helps her style the wig as closely as possible to her everyday hairstyle. “Wigs are meant to be thinned, cut and styled to your face-shape and preferences,” she says, adding that even if you buy an inexpensive wig, it’s better to take it to a wig fitter for styling, rather than to your regular hair stylist.  
  2. Don’t assume that real hair is better than synthetic. Brooks notes that these days some synthetics are so life-like that they’re easily mistaken for natural hair. Besides, she adds, real hair is heavier—and hotter—than synthetic hair, and requires more upkeep. “Curly synthetic hair stays curly,” she says. “Some synthetics are so realistic that the roots are actually darker.
  3. You get what you pay for. The cost differential in synthetic wigs is mainly due to how the hair is stitched into the surface of the wig, says Brooks. Less expensive wigs have larger strips of hair machine-sewn into the fabric. Higher quality ones are “hand-tied,” where each strand is hand-sewn one strand at a time, which makes for a more natural look. The “monofilament” wig has hand-tied hair at the crown only.
  4. Consider a wig with a liner. Some women have naturally sensitive scalps that are prone to itchiness. If you’re among them, one possible solution is buying a wig that contains a wig cap. The wig cap, also known as a wig liner, is the softer fabric that you see and feel when you turn the wig inside out. Not every style of wig comes with a wig cap, which varies in quality, says Brooks. You can also buy a wig cap separately.
  5. Check out medical insurance benefits. Some healthcare plans provide for “cranial prostheses"—otherwise known as a wig—with a medical doctor’s prescription. If this benefit is part of your coverage, take advantage of it.
  6. Take charge of your hair loss.  It is not unusual today for women with hair medium to long in length to cut their hair short in advance of it falling out. Some have even done a buzz cut, to truly empower themselves for when their hair will be gone (versus waiting for the chemotherapy drugs to cause the hair to fall out.)  If considering either, ask your medical oncologist or a nurse when to anticipate hair loss happening. Some drugs cause hair loss just a few days after the first dose; others may be several doses before it happens.
  7. Opt for a totally new look. Despite the comfort of the familiar, some women decide to buy a wig whose color and style are totally different from their pre-cancer look. “Chemo brings a lot of changes in a woman’s life, so it’s natural that some woman might also want to change their hairstyle.”

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