With the right tools and techniques, along with a little patience, chemo curls can be a beautiful reminder of your strength and healing.

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The first time I noticed the downy layer of fuzz beginning to sprout from my head, I could barely believe what I was seeing.

Mere months before, my old hair — long, thick, and easily my favorite aspect of my look — began falling from my scalp in clumps, leaving nests on my pillow each morning.

My oncologist warned this would happen after the second chemotherapy infusion to treat my breast cancer, but that did little to lessen the shock of watching bald spots form where my lush tresses once hung.

When my hair finally began coming back, I couldn’t help fantasizing about returning to my old look, wondering how long it would take for my beloved long, straight locks to grow.

However, as the fuzz lengthened just beyond pixie cut length, I noticed something: My new hair was curly. As it grew longer, it also grew curlier, tight ringlets sprouting from my scalp where straight strands once hung.

While I was grateful to simply have hair again, I also felt frustrated trying to wrangle my wild, curly mane into submission each day.

Though my first instinct was to attack the curls with blow-dryers and straighteners, I soon realized that learning to work with my curls, rather than against them, would garner better results.

With that in mind, here are five techniques that helped me through each stage of chemo curl growth.

Like most people, I equated sudsy lather with a good shampoo. But for curly hair, bubbles may not be best.

Often, sudsy shampoos contain sulfates (look for names like lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate in the ingredient list) that dissolve oils to clean hair strands. While that’s fine for some hair types, stripping the natural oil can leave curly locks dry and frizzy.

Instead, try sulfate-free or low- or no-lather shampoos. These formulas look and feel like a conditioner, but work to gently cleanse hair while softening and moisturizing.

Well, maybe not totally, but in general, air drying is much better for curly hair.

Just like sulfates in shampoo, blow-dryers can strip moisture from hair, leaving it frizzy and unmanageable.

Instead, dry using a microfiber towel, which absorbs more moisture and won’t damage or cause frizz as terrycloth towels can.

Detangle with fingers or a wide-tooth comb, and try to not touch hair as it dries, which can also lead to frizz.

To build volume at the roots and speed the drying process, use a diffuser attachment on your blow-dryer. Diffusers disperse the hot air evenly and gently to help prevent flyaways.

While people with pin-straight hair can simply wash, dry, and go, curls require a bit more care to look their best. That care includes a few extra products to keep hair moisturized and frizz-free.

Styling products for curly hair

  • Curl creams can be used on wet or dry hair to hydrate, reduce frizz and give spirals definition.
  • Mousse works well for finer-textured hair to add body and volume. Apply mousse while hair is still wet to amp up curls.
  • Gels are a popular choice for all types of curls to amplify the spirals and smooth frizz. Thicker gels work better on coarser hair, while more watery formulas work for finer texture. Apply gels while hair is wet for best results.
  • Hair oils are another big trend in curly hair management, but one of the most effective (and least expensive) might not even be on the hair aisle. Coconut oil — yes, the one you use for cooking, moisturizing, and everything else — also helps hydrate dry curls because its structure is similar to hair’s natural lipids, making it absorb into the hair easier.
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No matter how many great products or techniques you use, some days those curls just refuse to behave. When that happens, hair accessories like headbands, barrettes, and bobby pins can help save your style.

Soft, stretchy fabric headbands can handle the volume of curly hair without feeling uncomfortably tight, and they often come in fun colors and patterns to coordinate with almost any outfit.

To ensure the headband stays put, look for those made with slip-resistant materials. If you choose a hard headband, try to avoid those with built-in combs or teeth, as they can cause damage and hair breakage.

Barrettes and bobby pins — either embellished or more subtle versions designed to match hair color — are another stylish tool for keeping chemo curls under control. These little helpers are great for pinning down flyaways or securing a slipping headband.

This is a tough one for cancer survivors, and it can feel counterintuitive when you’re trying to regrow hair, but getting regular trims will ensure your new locks stay healthy and manageable.

As post-chemo hair grows, it will naturally get longer in the back than on top, creating an unfortunate mullet look. Regular trims will help even growth all over so no section of hair is way longer than another.

With chemo curls, regular cuts are important for removing bulk and preventing your head from looking like a fluffy pyramid. Ask your stylist to thin out the sides a bit to reduce the pouf and keep curls sleek and healthy.

Wait until hair has grown at least 3 inches to trim the ends, and follow up with regular cuts every 10 to 12 weeks.

Chemo curls can be a frustrating part of the cancer survivor experience. But with the right tools and techniques, along with a little patience, they can also be a beautiful reminder of your strength and healing.


Jennifer Bringle has written for Glamour, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among other outlets. She’s working on a memoir about her post-cancer experience. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.