Scalp cooling is done by applying cold temperatures to your scalp during chemotherapy treatment for cancer. It’ sometimes called scalp hypothermia.

Scalp cooling is intended to help prevent hair loss, known as chemotherapy-induced alopecia, for people undergoing chemotherapy. It works by limiting blood flow to the scalp. This can reduce the amount of the chemo treatment that reaches your head, protecting your hair follicles from the chemo drugs.

Scalp cooling costs depend on a few factors:

  • which types of scalp cooling treatments your health insurance covers
  • how your scalp cooling treatment is delivered (ice packs, caps, or scalp cooling system)
  • which brand of scalp cooling treatment you choose (DigniCap, Paxman, etc.)
  • how many cycles of treatment you undergo during chemotherapy

On average, the total cost of scalp cooling treatments may fall between $1,500 and $3,000, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Scalp cooling constricts the blood vessels in your scalp. This can prevent chemo treatments from targeting cells in your hair follicles and causing hair to fall out.

Scalp cooling is accomplished using one of several methods:

Ice packs

Ice packs between -15°F (-26°C) and -40°F (-40°C) are applied to your scalp during chemo treatment. Once an ice pack has become too warm, it’s replaced with a new ice pack to maintain the cold scalp temperature until treatment is finished.

Cooling caps

A cap filled with frozen material, similar to an ice pack or cold pack, is secured to your head during chemo treatment. When the cap becomes warm, it’s replaced with another cooling cap to maintain the cold scalp temperature until treatment is finished.

Scalp cooling system

A room-temperature cap is secured to your head, then connected to a hose that’s attached to a cooling machine. A second insulating cap is then placed on top of the first cap. The machine delivers coolant to the cap during chemo treatment and for about an hour and a half after treatment is finished. Sensors in the cap allow the temperature of the cap to be regulated so that the cap remains cold throughout the entire treatment.

If scalp cooling proves effective for your specific chemo treatments, you’ll be able to keep most, if not all, of your hair. In one study conducted on women with breast cancer, more than 50 percent of the women who received scalp cooling during their chemo treatment kept most or all of their hair. All of the women who didn’t get scalp cooling experienced hair loss.

Many of these studies also show that scalp cooling is most successful for early stage forms of breast and solid tumor cancer. While we need further research to sort out long-term effectiveness or side effects, this is a noninvasive approach that appears to be safe.

Electing to use scalp cooling to prevent hair loss also gives you some control over part of the chemo process. This can give you peace of mind and confidence during cancer treatment.

Scalp cooling can cause discomfort if you’re sensitive to cold. Applying cold temperatures to the scalp can lower your overall body temperature, so bring warm clothes or blankets to chemo treatments to prevent symptoms of hypothermia. Hypothermia symptoms include:

  • shivering
  • drowsiness
  • shallow breathing
  • lower heart rate

Some scalp cooling systems may cause you to lose patches of hair where the device doesn’t make secure enough contact with parts of your scalp. This is more of a risk with ice packs or cold caps that aren’t properly fitted to your head.

Some doctors and researchers have been concerned that scalp cooling could increase your risk of scalp metastases. These are cancerous growths on your scalp that are thought to be more likely when blood vessel constriction stops chemo treatments from targeting cancer cells in the scalp. But research suggests that your risk of scalp metastases isn’t any higher with scalp cooling than without it.

Scalp cooling is usually recommended if you’re receiving chemo treatment for breast cancer or cancer that involves solid tumors. Most cancer treatment centers will have more options than smaller facilities. Many scalp cooling systems, such as DigniCap, have been specifically tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use during breast cancer treatments.

Scalp cooling is most effective if you’re undergoing a limited number of chemo treatments.

Your doctor may not recommend scalp cooling if:

  • You’re going to need chemo treatment for a long period or undetermined amount of time.
  • Your body can’t tolerate extreme cold for an extended time.
  • Your dosage of chemo medication is high.
  • You have thick hair, since the cooling device may not make enough contact with your hair follicles to effectively constrict your blood vessels.
  • Your doctor believes that you have cancer cells in your scalp. Scalp cooling may prevent chemo treatment from targeting these cancer cells.

Scalp cooling is proving to be an increasingly effective way to fight hair loss during cancer treatment. Newer scalp cooling systems, such as DigniCap and Paxman, allow more control, precision, and coverage than traditional scalp cooling treatments like ice packs and cold caps. Research shows that these systems give you a much greater chance of keeping your hair.