Breast Cancer: How to Tame Chemo Curls and Improve Scars

how to tame chemo curls and improve scars

These great questions about how to tame chemo curls and improve scars after breast cancer treatment came in from reader Isabelle as a comment on my post celebrating my first day back at work after "The Breast Cancer Year." Thank you Isabelle, this is a great pair of questions. Frankly, from what I can tell, all of us chemo and mastectomy gals have these questions - I did too.  Bravo for writing to me and asking these questions, it reminded me to share my answers (chemo brain?!). 

Dear Dr. Bailey, I'm so happy for you, may each day bring more energy and health. I, too, am recovering from breast cancer. Had my last Herceptin in July 2014, last full chemo Nov ’13. Any suggestions for improving my now gray, dry frizzy chemo “curls”, and scar improvement from mastectomy & port removal site? Here’s to feeling better one day at a time!  Isabelle  

Dear Isabelle,

Congratulations to you too! We are now "survivors!" I much prefer that to "breast cancer patients." These are questions I faced and am asked locally by my breast cancer "sisters".  I'm so glad you've prompted me to share what I know.

Changing existing hair requires using hair care products.

(My stylist will kiss me for saying that.) Once emerged from the follicle, nothing we do internally will change the existing shafts of hair. That said, products can entirely change the character of hair. For example, frizzy tames down with dimethicone-containing hair products or other dimethicone-cousins ingredients that sound like "-ethicone". They are in the silicone ingredient family and we use them in skin care too. They work by coating the outer hair shaft.

Layering hair shafts with silicone type ingredients will help to tame chemo curls.

Dimethicone and related silicone ingredients will:

  • hold moisture into the shaft, thus hydrating the hair
  • give hair more shine
  • layer on the hair shaft to give it a smoother outer surface and overall texture
  • make the hair shaft heavier and less "fly away"
  • seal the outer shaft so that it absorbs less ambient humidity which can give you extra frizz

          Look for conditioners or leave-on treatments with an "-ethicone" listed as an ingredient.

          I love these types of products since I've always had fly-away hair. Now it's super curly AND fly-away. I call this my "mutton" phase. I actually love it. I think I'm headed for a "Boo Peep" phase that I will not like so much so I'm playing this phase up as much as I can.

          Also, scruffing your hair vigorously with a towel can worsen frizz problems with chemo curls.

          The mechanical action can lift up the overlapping hair cuticle dead cells which are like shingles. Instead of using a scruffing action to dry your hair, use the towel in a downward direction.

          I’m also using a hair wax to give the wild chemo curls a sassier look. 

          My stylist taught me how to apply it. I have very stunted hair skills and needed a remedial tutorial :-)  As a life-long straight- and long-hair girl, I'm really having fun with this new adventure - and it sure beats chemo! Click here to see the photo of my curls on my first day back. Below I've listed some of my personal favorite dimethicone products. Also, one last point, gray hair is inherently more course than non-gray hair. That may be contributing to the frizzy dry feel. 

          My list of -ethicone hair care products to smooth, to tame, and to soften hair includes:

          • L'Oreal Professionnal, Vitamino Color Incell Hydro-Resist Conditioner
          • MoroccanOil Hydrating Conditioner
          • MoroccanOil Treatment
          • KMS California Hair Play Gel Wax

              Chemo curls before and after photos

              Here are pictures of my hair before chemo, the chemo curls and several years after chemo when they grew out. 

              2 months before being diagnosed with cancer and starting chemo.

              You can see that my natural hair is fine and straight.

              hair picture before chemo curls

              Chemo curls in their full glory!

              This is taken without working too hard to tame the chemo curls about 12 months after chemo!

              taming chemo curls

              This professional head shot is taken after I worked hard to tame them for the photo shoot. It is probably about 15 month after chemo ended.

              chemo curls before they grew out

              My hair after the chemo curls grew out.

              The slight curl at the end is done with a curling iron because my hair is totally straight again. 

              chemo curls after

              How can we improve our breast cancer scars? 

              These are our battle wounds. I'm feeling proud of mine, but I certainly only take that so far. I want them to look healthy and as subtle as possible. 

              My top care recommendation is strict sun avoidance of the scar so it does not hyperpigment.

              That means keep the chemo port scar covered.

              The second bit of advice to improve breast cancer scars is ... silicone!

              Yes again, silicone can soften scars to prevent keloids and hypertrophic (thick) scars. For some reason, silicone calms down the overgrowth of scars. I like Kelocote brand (that's what I used) and tincture of time.

              Scars do settle down over time. Mine are just now losing the red color and flattening out. My port was removed in March and my mastectomy and lymph node removal (both sides - poor me, but all is good now!) was early January. Woot woo to us!!! I hope that helps!


              Cynthia Bailey MD, Breast Cancer Survivor and Dermatologist

              Purchase my Chemotherapy Skin Care Kit and I donate all the profits to breast cancer advocacy.

              get dermatologist's chemotherapy skin care kit hereDo you have skin problems from chemo?   I developed my Chemotherapy Skin Care Kit to keep her own skin healthy and comfortable while she underwent chemo treatments.  My kit helps support the health of cancer patients' skin after chemo too.  The Chemo Skin Care Kit is a complete skin care routine for anyone undergoing cancer treatment.  

              I personally knows how exhausting and overwhelming it is to be a cancer patient and so I have written clear instructions to help take the guess work out of skin care during chemo.  

              Having healthy skin during chemo is more important than ever. Remember, skin is the body's biggest organ and it is constantly exposed to germs and environmental stress.  Rashes can become a dangerous risk for infection when you are on chemo. 

              My Chemo Kit helps keep your skin healthy and makes a thoughtful gift for anyone undergoing chemo.


              Click here to see my Dermatologist's Chemotherapy Skin Care Kit.