How to Choose, Care for, and Wear a Wig

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on June 08, 2022
4 min read

When you get certain treatments for cancer, like chemotherapy, there’s a chance you’ll lose some or all of the hair on your head. It usually starts within 3 weeks of treatment and becomes more visible within a month or two. During this time, some women welcome the privacy, sense of normalcy, or fresh new look that a wig can offer.

If you’re thinking about getting a wig, start looking before you begin treatment. That way you’ll have the time and energy to shop around. You’ll also give yourself more time to get used to your wig and test it out. Some days you could practice wearing it, and other days you could just sport your natural hair.

When you’re ready to start shopping, you could go to a wig shop, browse online retailers, or meet with a wig specialist at home. If you need help finding a wig, you can always ask your cancer care team, a support group, or your hairdresser to recommend options. Wherever you shop, find out what the return and exchange policies are before you buy.

Also talk to your health insurance company. Your plan may cover some or all of the cost of a wig if your doctor writes you a prescription for a “cranial prothesis” or a “hair prosthesis.” If cost is still an issue, you might be able to get a free wig through a nonprofit group like the American Cancer Society.

Once you decide you want to get a wig, here’s what to do:

It’s best to use a cloth measuring tape. Wet your hair or slick it down. Then, take three measurements in inches so you can get fitted for a wig.

  1. Measure from the top of one ear to the top of your other ear.
  2. Wrap the measuring tape around your head, from your hairline to the bulge in the back of your head.
  3. Measure front to back, from the top of your hairline to the back of your neck.

Want a wig that looks like your current hairdo? Snap a selfie and snip a lock from the top-front of your head for reference.

Have long hair? Think about cutting it short. When you switch to a wig, fewer people might notice the change.

Once your hair starts falling out, wear a mesh cap while you sleep to catch loose locks. Or get your head shaved with an electric razor.

First, select a style. A full wig covers your head. A topper fills out thinning hair on top. A halo gives you hair only on the sides, so you wear it with a hat or head scarf.

Then, decide on the material. Wigs are made with natural hair, artificial (“synthetic”) hair, or a mix of both. Also, think about a color. A shade that’s a bit lighter than your natural hair may be ideal.

It’s best to buy an adjustable wig. It’ll be more likely to fit your head well.

To put on your wig:

  • Hold the wig at its sides, with its label in the back.
  • Tilt your head forward and set the wig on the middle of your forehead. Slip it on from front to back.

The top front of the wig’s cap belongs about 1 inch past your real hairline. The ear tabs should be just in front of your ears. Wig not fitting well? Adjust the back tabs. If that doesn’t help, consider getting a different size.

Once you have it on, a few tips for how to make it look natural:

  • Don’t bring too much hair forward.
  • Muss it up a bit, rather than keeping every hair perfectly in place.
  • Ask a hairdresser to trim the bangs and thin the wig out for a more realistic look.
  • It also helps to get a wig with a lace front and a monofilament part or top.

No matter what kind of wig you buy, you’ll need to do a few things to take care of it. Wigs made with synthetic hair tend to cost less and need less care. Ones with natural hair tend to last longer and are easier to style.

Follow the instructions that come with your wig on how to wash it. As a rule of thumb, shampoo and condition it every 10-14 days if you wear it daily, or after every 8 to 10 uses. Wash it more often if you style it with lots of hair spray or styling products. Dry it and store it on a wig stand -- don’t keep it in a plastic bag or box.

Also give your scalp TLC while you go through treatment. Consider wearing a nylon or mesh wig cap beneath your wig. It can absorb sweat, keep your scalp from getting irritated, and help your wig stay in place. When you’re not wearing your wig, slather broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF on the top of your head. And on chilly days, protect your scalp from the cold weather with a hat or head scarf.

Your own hair will grow back after you finish your treatment. It could take several months, and your locks may have a different thickness, texture, or color. Changes like these usually don’t last. There’s a good chance your hair will eventually look like it did before treatment.