Skincare and cancer
Keeping up your usual routines is not always easy when cancer and treatment can have such a big effect on your body. You might need to change your skincare routine up a bit, so here are some tips and information on the changes you might see.
How does chemotherapy affect the skin?
Cancer treatments can leave your skin more sensitive than usual. You might find your skin is sore. Your care team can help with any questions you have, especially if you’re receiving radiotherapy treatment or dealing with skin conditions like acne or eczema.
‘Chemo rash’ can be caused by several cancer treatments, not just chemotherapy. As well as a rash, it can look like acne. If you get a rash, you should always get it checked by your doctor or nurse straight away.
Cancer treatments can make your skin more itchy. Moisturising regularly with an emollient or moisturising cream that contains oatmeal, menthol or 10% urea may help with this. You may also be able to get a prescription to help with the itching. Try not to scratch as this will increase your risk of infection.
Cancer drugs can make your skin drier. Areas treated with radiotherapy can also be drier than the rest of the body. To help with dry skin you can:
- Wash in lukewarm water rather than having very hot showers or baths
- Use unscented bath and shower products and soap-free cleansers
- Moisturise soon after washing using unscented products
Some cancer treatments can cause spots that look like acne. But you should not use normal acne treatments on them as it could make it worse. Your doctor or nurse will be able to give you something which should help.
Changes to skin colour
If you are having radiotherapy, you may notice your skin colour changing. This might mean it goes red or, if you have dark skin, it can get darker. The person giving you radiotherapy will be able to give you advice on how to look after your skin during and after treatment. These reactions normally settle down 2 to 4 weeks after treatment ends.
Ingredients in products to avoid
You may have read worrying reports about chemicals in skincare and makeup which cause cancer. There is no good evidence to suggest this is the case. The UK also has strict rules to make sure products are safe.
If you are worried, you can buy products which do not contain parabens and phthalates which are sometimes linked with cancer risk. You may also want to avoid strong smelling and harsh products as your skin will be more sensitive.
Always check with your doctor or nurse before using any skincare products if you are still having treatment or have had a skin reaction.
Try to keep up a good skincare routine and look out for mild or gentle ranges of products such as cleansers, toners and moisturisers – they will still do the job. Below are some more specific tips to keep you looking and feeling your best.
Avoid perfumes or aftershaves
You might find you are more sensitive to strong smells during your treatment. If you are feeling sick, avoid strongly scented products. Perfumed products can also irritate your skin when it is more sensitive.
Avoid hot water showers
Very hot showers and baths can make your skin drier. This means it is more likely to get itchy and sore. Try turning the hot tap down instead.
Avoid scrubbing the skin
Your skin might be feeling more sensitive during treatment so avoid scrubbing it too hard. Pat your skin dry instead of rubbing it. Use soft flannels and towels.
Use unscented moisturisers
You can carry on using your usual moisturiser unless it irritates the skin. If your skin is irritated, try using an unscented moisturiser instead. You might also want to choose unscented products as strong smells can make side effects like feeling sick worse.
Wear loose-fitting clothing
Your skin might be more sensitive to sunlight now. Protect it from direct sunlight with loose-fitting clothing. Avoid tight clothes if your skin is sore, itchy or around areas where you have had radiotherapy treatment.
Use an electric shaver
You might have lost your body hair but if shaving is still something you need to deal with, using a razor blade on sensitive skin is not ideal, especially as you might be at a greater risk of infection. Electric razors are kinder to skin and can be just as good – check with your care team first
- Stay away from waxing and hair removal creams
- Make sure everything you use is clean, your products are gentle, and take your time to avoid nicks and cuts.
Use sun cream
It is always important to protect your skin from the sun but even more so when you are having cancer treatment. You might find your skin is more sensitive to sunlight than usual. This can continue for up to a year after treatment. Use sun creams or moisturisers with a high sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Choose one that protects skin against UVA and UVB rays with at least 4 or 5 stars.
Drink lots of water
Drinking water is good for your overall health. If you are dehydrated, it can affect how your skin looks.
Seren talks about what products she looked out for and how she took care of her skin.
Products to Use
There are some products you might find helpful to use during your cancer treatment. You should always test new products on a small patch of skin first. Ask if you can try a small sample before you buy. You can also look for reviews of products you are interested in.
Use mild, unperfumed, soap-free cleansers. Soaps will make your skin drier.
Exfoliators remove dead and dry skin cells. This can make your skin look brighter and help it absorb moisturisers more effectively. Test out exfoliating cleansers rather than physical methods which might be too harsh. You should not use exfoliators if your skin is sensitive or there are small blood vessels visible near the surface.
Serums should be applied to your face after cleansing and before moisturising. There are different types of serums for different skin types. Always test a product on a small area of skin before using regularly. Talk to your care team if you have had treatment on your face or neck.
Moisturising your skin regularly helps stop it getting dry and itchy. It is fine to continue using your normal moisturiser unless it makes your skin irritated. If you do need to look for a new product, look at unscented options. If your skin is particularly dry or itchy, your care team might recommend a specific type of moisturiser.
If you go swimming, wash off the chlorine immediately and apply moisturiser to help stop your skin drying out.
Face masks can help you relax. The type you choose will depend on your skin type. Always make sure your skin and hands are clean when applying a face mask. Go for creamy or clay-based options rather than harsher ‘peel’ types. Always make sure you wash off the face mask fully when you are done.
Baby oils and mineral oils can be applied to damp skin to help stop it drying out. If you are trying out a new product, test it on a small patch of skin first.
You might find your skin tone and complexion changes during cancer treatment. Make-up can be a great way to help you cope with these changes. You might find you need to change your usual shades or try out new products. Concealer can be great for quickly covering up dark circles under your eyes while a green-tinted primer can tone down rosy skin.
If you are using makeup, there are some things you can do to lower your risk of infection:
- Wash your hands before applying makeup
- Do not share brushes, sponges or other applicators with anyone else
- Clean brushes and sponges regularly or use disposable sponges
- Put the lid back on products after using them
Talk to Make Up Counters
There are lots of different makeup products out there. Talk to the staff at makeup counters who will be able to recommend what might work for you. They can also give you tips on how to apply new products.
Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisors are specially trained to help people living with cancer manage the visible side effects of treatment.
You can also attend a specialist in-person or online workshop for people with cancer via Look Good Feel Better.
Deodorants and Antiperspirants
Your skin can become sensitive during treatment, and that includes under your arms. Surely your pits deserve the same TLC as anywhere else!
- Try gentle scent-free deodorants with natural ingredients when your skin is sensitive
- Roll-ons are often good as they can be more comfortable to apply than spray.
Ask Your Doctor if You Are Not Sure
You can talk to your doctor or nurse if you are unsure about any skincare products. If you notice changes in your skin or have a reaction you should contact your care team straight away.
Published May 2023
Next review 2027
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