Wigged Out: Women who lose their hair don't have to surrender their style

For Howard Magazine
Wigs have come a long way.

Eileen Josenhans knows what it’s like to be bald.

The Howard County General Hospital volunteer, who for 10 years has helped women choose wigs at the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center, lost her hair in 2011 after she began treatment for breast cancer.

Cancer itself is overwhelming, with the mental and physical fatigue, nausea and skin changes that come with chemotherapy, she says. But when a woman’s hair starts falling out, it’s often the “last straw.”

“A lot of people are sad about it,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the hair but the whole situation they’re in.”

Maria Cheeyou, owner of The Perfect Fit By Maria health boutiques in Baltimore and Glen Burnie, agrees.

“We take so much pride in our hair,” she says. “Often, the first time a woman starts crying or falling apart is when they start losing their hair.”

To feel more confident during her treatment, Josenhans wore a short, blonde, synthetic hair wig with a layered cut.

“It was similar to the hair I had before I lost it,” the Owings Mills resident says.

Since then, wigs have evolved to become more practical and natural-looking, she says. Styles, colors and materials have also changed, giving women more choices when it comes to finding a wig that fits their personality and lifestyle.

“We are finding there are more choices out there than ever before,” says Shelle Brown, center coordinator at the Cancer Resource Center, which also rents space to Wig and Hair Solutions, a private business providing wig services. “Our clients have been surprised with the wigs that can create the illusion of natural hair growth.”

But choosing and wearing a wig is more complicated than it might seem. Just as women experience hair loss for a range of reasons — including cancer treatment, alopecia, stress and surgery — wigs come in a variety of forms, each with their own price points and care requirements.

Howard Magazine talked with local experts to find out how women can choose the right wig to feel stylish and confident.

What’s in a wig?

When it comes to wigs, materials matter. They generally come in two varieties: synthetic and human hair.

Human hair wigs can be cut, colored and styled with tools like curling irons. They also need frequent washing and are more expensive than synthetic hair wigs, starting at around $800.

“All of the things you do for hair on your head, you have to do with a human hair wig,” says Leslie Rogers, director of patient support services at Howard County General Hospital.

Synthetic wigs, on the other hand, require less styling and maintenance and are generally more affordable than human hair wigs, starting at around $100. Wearers use a special shampoo to clean the wig, but the wig does not need to be washed as frequently. Synthetic wigs cannot be colored and, unless they are made from heat-resistant fibers, should not be worn while cooking or around an open flame.

Synthetic wigs can also become “frizzy” when they rub against the wearer’s shoulders or collarbone, Rogers says. That’s why most women who choose synthetic prefer shoulder length or shorter hair, Rogers says.

The right look

The stress and insecurity that comes with hair loss can make the prospect of find a wig seem daunting, but experts say the right approach can make the experience a success.

First, take a close friend with you to the salon. Friends can give tips on what looks good and lend a supportive ear or shoulder if needed, Josenhans says. And when you’re trying on wigs, don’t be afraid to play the field. In addition to seeing what they look like, evaluate the feel of the wig on your head, she says. Consider its comfort around the face.

Try new shades, Cheeyou says. Skin changes during chemotherapy, and a woman’s previous hair color could make her skin looked washed out. A shade or two off from her natural hair color may help brighten her appearance, she says.

Be patient during this process — not all women walk away with a wig the first day. It can take a few days to decide, especially if the wearer has just lost her hair. Ordered or custom wigs can also take days to weeks to arrive. Use as much time as you need to pick a wig that works best for you, Cheeyou says.

Finally, make a choice that fits your personal style.

“Patients know themselves,” Rogers says. “If they are talked into a wig, nine times out of 10 they’ll bring it back.”

Whether choosing a wig with your natural hair color or going for something completely different, have confidence in your final choice.   

Turning heads

Wigs have come a long way from powdered pieces of colonial America. Today’s hairpieces are suited to modern styles and are practical for day-to-day comfort.

Staff at the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center, Crowning Alternatives wig salon and The Perfect Fit By Maria health boutique recommended these wig innovations for the style-conscious wearer.

Heat-friendly/resistant synthetic wigs: Wearers can use flat irons, curling irons and blow dryers on heat-friendly wigs, which are made from heat-resistant fibers. These wigs can withstand heat up to 300 degrees and give women more options for styling, says Sharon Gilbert, owner of Linthicum-based Crowning Alternatives wig salon. The down side: Heat-friendly wigs tend to be dryer than typical synthetic wigs, she says.

Monofilament/ mono-top wig: These wigs have hairs hand-knotted into breathable nylon or silk mesh. When applied, the mesh disappears against the scalp, allowing the wearer’s natural skin color to come through. The part looks more natural and gives the wearer more versatility with styling, Brown says.

Rooted/ombre wigs: Rooted wigs have dark roots at the scalp, while ombre wigs have colors graduating from dark at the base to light at the ends. These styles copy the recent trend seen on Hollywood stars and in salons across the country.

European hair wigs: Most human hair wigs are made of Asian hair, which tends to be thick with coarse cuticles. Eastern European hair wigs have a different texture, says Gilbert. “They have good movement, and they just feel like butter,” she says. They are also more expensive, starting at around $1,700.

Silver blends: Older patients who have gray or white hair can now choose blends, which mimic the natural gray progression, Cheeyou says. “They have a lighter blend of silver and gray in the front and a darker blend in the back,” she says. Wigs also come with grays mixed into black and brown shades.

Asymmetrical bob wigs: The asymmetrical bob, where hair is longer in the front than in the back, is one of the most popular wigs sold at the cancer resource center’s wig salon, Josenhans says. Women like the look both with bangs and without, she says. 

Lace-front wigs: These wigs come with a meshlike ribbon attached in front of the hairline. Once the wig is applied, stylists trim the ribbon to fit the wearer’s natural hairline, Brown says. The wig’s hair line then blends with the wearer’s skin, creating an overall more natural look, she says. While they have been around for a while, lace-front wigs are becoming more popular with women who have lost hair because of cancer treatment or alopecia, experts say.

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