Cold caps — tightly fitting, strap-on hats filled with gel that’s chilled to between -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit — may help some women keep some or quite a bit of their hair during chemotherapy. Because the caps are so cold, they narrow the blood vessels beneath the skin of the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles. With less chemotherapy medicine in the follicles, the hair may be less likely to fall out.
There are several brands of cold caps, including Penguin Cold Caps and the DigniCap System. In most cases, you rent the caps for the length of your chemotherapy treatment. Penguin caps are chilled in a special freezer (the freezer in your house can’t get the cap as cold as it needs to be) and then delivered to your chemotherapy treatment center, each in its own storage box. The DigniCap is connected to a cooling/control unit that then chills the cap to the proper temperature.
During each chemotherapy session, you wear the caps for:
- 20 to 50 minutes before
- after each chemotherapy session (the amount of time you wear the cap after the chemotherapy session depends on the type of chemotherapy you’re getting)
You may have to change the Penguin caps several times during the chemotherapy treatment. Each cap is usually worn for about 30 minutes; then it warms up and is replaced with a new cap. Since the DigniCap System is chilled by the control unit, you don’t have to change caps during treatment.
Because the caps are so cold, some women get a headache while wearing the cap. Most women get very cold, so it makes sense to dress warmly and bring warm blankets with you if you decide to try the cold caps.
Women who use cold caps during chemotherapy are advised to baby their hair during treatment:
- no blow drying, hot rollers, or straightening irons
- shampoo only every third day with cool water and a gentle shampoo
- no coloring until 3 months after chemotherapy is done
- gentle combing and brushing
The cost of using the caps varies depending on the manufacturer, the number of chemotherapy sessions you’ll be having, and the number of months you’ll be using the caps. Some users have said the cost of the caps is comparable to the cost of a having a wig made. Check with your insurance carrier to see if the cost of renting the caps is covered.
It’s important to know that some doctors are concerned that the caps may prevent the chemotherapy medicine from reaching cancer cells that may be in the scalp. Several U.S. studies are underway to look at the safety and effectiveness of the caps. At this time, none of the caps have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
It’s also important to know that cold caps don’t work for everyone. In two small European studies, cold caps were considered effective in about 50% of the women that used them. Women who got only anthracycline chemotherapy had better results with cold caps than women who got only taxane chemotherapy.
Adriamycin (chemical name: doxorubicin), Ellence (chemical name: epirubicin), and daunorubicin are anthracyclines.
Taxol (chemical name: paclitaxel), Taxotere (chemical name: docetaxel), and Abraxane (chemical name: albumin-bound or nab-paclitaxel) are taxanes.
Women who got both an anthracycline and a taxane in their chemotherapy regimen (combination chemotherapy) seem to have the worst results with cold caps, though some of them still kept some of their hair.
If you’re interested in trying cold caps, talk to your doctor about all the factors that need to be taken into account, including your chemotherapy regimen and any other health issues you may have.