Before you make a decision about a wig, it might help to understand the differences between the types of wigs that are available.
Wigs can be man made (synthetic) or real (human hair) wigs. Or you can get wigs that are made of a mix of man made and human hair.
Instead of wigs, you can buy fringes or hairpieces that can be fixed to a hat or head scarf.
Synthetic wigs are a lot cheaper than real hair wigs.
Most synthetic wigs come ready to wear in a wide variety of styles, lengths and colours. You don’t have to style them and they won’t get damaged in the rain.
You can usually get your wig quite quickly after having your fitting.
Synthetic wigs can be washed in cold water and they usually last between 6 and 9 months.
Check the manufacturer's information before you expose your synthetic wig to direct heat. Hair dryers and electric styling tools, such as hair straighteners or curling wands can melt the fibres and make the hair frizz. You might be able to find some man made wigs that you can use heat on. Or use your dryer or straighteners on a cooler setting.
Real hair wigs are much more expensive than synthetic ones. The exact cost depends on where you buy the wig and its style and length.
Real hair wigs last between 3 and 4 years which is much longer than synthetic ones. Some people prefer to have a real hair wig despite the cost. They think it gives them a more natural look and they can be easier to style than synthetic wigs.
You could arrange to have your fitting before, or soon after, your treatment begins. This way it might be ready when your hair begins to fall out.
It's worth bearing in mind that it can take about 2 to 3 months if you're having a custom wig made. It will also take several fittings to get the wig right for you.
Some real hair wigs need to be styled and set by a hairdresser. You might need to buy two wigs so that you always have one to wear if your wig needs to be professionally cleaned. Your wig fitter can tell you if your wig can be washed at home.
There are a variety of wigs available for different ages, hair colours and ethnic groups. There are also wigs and headwear for men, although these are a bit more difficult to find.
Talk to your specialist nurse or wig fitter if you can’t find what you want. They might be able to point you in the right direction.
Getting a wig through your health service or the NHS
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
You can get a wig for free through the NHS if you live in Wales and Scotland. Wigs are also provided for free through the Health and Social Care services if you live in Northern Ireland.
In England man made (synthetic) wigs are free of charge on the NHS if:
- you have your treatment as an inpatient (meaning you stay in hospital overnight)
- you're under 19 years old and in full time education
- you're getting Income Support, Income based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income related Employment and Support Allowance
- you're getting Pension Credit Guarantee Credit
- you get Universal Credit - this will depend on your earnings
- you have an NHS tax credit exemption certificate or HC2 certificate (Help with Costs certificate)
- you have a War Pension or Armed Forces Compensation Scheme exemption certificate
If within 3 months of buying an NHS wig you find out that you are able to have help with the costs, you can claim for a refund. You will need the receipt for proof of purchase.
Human hair wigs are not usually free on the NHS in England unless one of the following applies to you:
- you are allergic to synthetic wigs
- you have a skin condition that will be made worse by an synthetic wig
If you are entitled to a new wig, the NHS will provide you with a new one every 6 months. There is no national limit on the number of wigs the NHS can supply you with. But individual hospitals may set their own limits.
Help towards the cost of a wig
You might still be able to get some help towards the cost of a wig if you are on a low income but don’t qualify for a free wig.
This is explained in the Department of Health leaflet called 'Help with health costs?' (HC11). The leaflet is available from your hospital.
You apply for this help on form HC1. If you are entitled to help, you will receive either:
- a full help certificate HC2 (you won’t need to pay for your wig)
- a limited help certificate HC3 (this certificate will tell you how much you must pay towards the cost of a wig)
Buying a wig through the NHS in England
You will have to pay for a wig if you're an outpatient and don’t otherwise qualify for a free wig. Being an outpatient means you attend hospital but don’t stay in overnight.
Buying a synthetic wig through the NHS starts at around £70. Partial and full human hair wigs cost more.
Speak to your hospital social worker or clinical nurse specialist if you are still not sure what you are entitled to. They can make sure that you’re getting the financial help you should be.
The Department of Health and Social Care leaflet called 'A quick guide to help with costs including charges and optical voucher values' (HC12) has details about how much NHS wigs cost.
Other financial help
Other charities might be able to give financial help towards the cost of a wig.
Macmillan Cancer Support give a one off grant to people with cancer for a variety of things, including heating bills, extra clothing and wigs. You need to apply through a health or social care professional, such as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS), district nurse or social worker.
Buying a wig privately
You might decide to buy your wig privately.
You can buy it:
- from a wig supplier such as a department store
- directly from a wig manufacturer
- from a specialist wig store
Many places have a private room where you can have your fitting. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a private room if you can't see one.
Some companies will come to your home to fit wigs. The fitting and styling cost is usually included in the price of the wig, but it is always best to check.
It may take longer if you have a wig made for you and you might need 2 or 3 fittings.
You don’t have to pay VAT (Value Added Tax) on wigs that are bought for hair loss caused by cancer treatment. But you must fill in a VAT form at the time you buy your wig. Be sure to ask the supplier for this form, because you can’t claim the VAT back later.
Choosing and fitting your wig
Your nurses will organise a wig fitter to come and visit you on the ward if you are an inpatient and you're getting a wig on the NHS. Many hospitals will organise a wig fitter if you're an outpatient, but it may not happen everywhere. Ask about wig services in your hospital.
Your wig fitter will help you decide on a style and colour that you are happy with. Seeing the wig fitter can be upsetting for some people. It might be the first time you think about losing your hair.
Wig specialists are very sensitive to this and will try to make the fitting as easy as possible for you. The most important thing is that you don’t rush things and you get a wig that you feel suits you.
You might want to choose your wig before your hair begins to fall out. This way it's much easier for the wig specialist to match your real hair style and colour. It also gives you a bit of time to get used to the idea of wearing a wig. If you try wigs on when you still have hair, remember that you might need a smaller size so that it fits when you have lost all your hair. Ask the wig fitter for advice about this. Or you can choose a wig that adjusts to head size.
Some people find that their complexion changes slightly once they start treatment. Predicting what colour wig might suit you later on is hard to do. But this might be something to bear in mind when choosing a wig. The wig fitter will be able to give you some advice about which colour to choose.
Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a private room to try on the wigs if you can't see one. Many people find it helps to bring along a relative or good friend to their wig fitting. They can support you through this tough time as well as help you choose a wig that suits you best.
Think about the following when choosing a wig.
- You can choose a wig that is most like your original hair colour and style. Or you could go for something completely different.
- Your hairdresser or wig specialist can cut or style a particular wig to suit you.
- Buying a more expensive wig doesn’t guarantee it will look more real. Some less expensive ones can look very real.
Tips for wearing a wig
For the first few days or weeks it might feel very strange to wear a wig. Some people never get used to a wig and feel more comfortable without it. Others say that they forget they have their wig on. You won’t know until you try it.
Always check that you have the wig on the right way around as it is easy to put them on backwards.
You can get sticky (adhesive) pads with your wig to stop it slipping if all your hair has fallen out. Some people say wearing these pads makes the wig feel more secure and helps them feel more confident.
Whoever supplies your wig should give you instructions about how to wear it and care for it. Follow these instructions carefully.
When can I stop wearing my wig?
This is up to you. It can take a bit of time for you to feel confident enough to go out without your wig.
You might feel ready to stop wearing it before your hair gets back to your pre treatment length. A shorter look might suit you and give you a new image.
Some people say it is a relief to get rid of the wig and feel like themselves again. Others may need more time.
Be kind to yourself and don’t expect too much. You have been through a lot in the past few months and had to deal with many changes in your life. So go at your own pace.
Other ways to cover your head
You may not want to wear a wig or wear one all the time. You could try different ways to cover your head such as hats, scarves, beanies or stretchy tubes.
Other body hair
Cancer treatments can cause other body hair to thin or to completely fall out. This includes your eyelashes and eyebrows.
You can use make up to help disguise these effects.