Cancer skincare – is all about how you can take care of your skin during and after chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Why skincare? After receiving cancer diagnosis from a doctor, skincare isn’t likely to be part of the thousands of thoughts buzzing through your mind. That thought usually surfaces when your doctor tells you to discard most of your current skincare products.
In a paper published in Elsevier journal, a researcher found that cancer cells multiply uncontrollably and disrupt the organization of cells, including the skin cells. Furthermore, cancerous cells are aggressive, so treatments also have to be aggressive to suppress those cells. When this happens, healthy skin cells might get damaged or destroyed, resulting in changes in the condition of your skin.
How does cancer treatment affect your skin?
With over 150 types of cancer, so many factors come into play. Depending on your situation, your cancer treatment will depend on things like tumor size, type of tumor, hormone receptor status and so on.
Regardless of the treatment that you get, cancer treatment has various side effects that can affect your skin. For instance, hair loss is a common side effect, but did you know that these treatments can make your skin become irritated, sensitive, and dry? Let’s talk more about how your skin changes because of these five cancer treatments.
1. Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is one of the most widely used treatments for cancer because of its low cost. It involves the use of radionuclide implants or radiation beams to blast tumors while sparing the surrounding healthy tissues.
Skin changes because of radiation therapy: once the cancerous part of your body receives radiation, the skin in that area can become darker, drier, and itchy. Your skin can become puffy and swollen, just like a sunburn. You may develop a moist reaction i.e. your skin has wet sores that are painful and infected.
Chemotherapy, also known as chemo, is a form of systemic treatment. It involves the use of drugs to treat cancer.
Skin changes because of chemotherapy: some drugs can cause itchiness, alopecia, dry/dehydrated skin or pigmentation. You may become photosensitive i.e. you get sunburn or rashes when exposed to the sun. Allergic reaction to the drugs might occur.
Surgery involves the removal of a tumor localized in one area. It is the most common treatment for early stage cancer. Surgery can prevent, diagnose or treat cancer. Tools used can range from scalpel, lasers, high heat, light to cold air.
Skin changes because of surgery: The cut from surgery to remove tumour causes a wound. As the wound heals, a scar forms, with a different texture and feel than the surrounding skin.
4. Targeted drug therapy
Some proteins and genes are specific to certain cancer. So, target drug therapy involves the use of antibodies or small-molecule drugs to target those proteins and genes that cancer cells need to develop and multiply.
Skin changes because of targeted drug therapy: Your skin might become dry or you might develop acne-like rashes or issues with your nails.
Immunotherapy is a biological therapy for cancer and it involves the use of substances made from living organisms to fight cancerous cells.
Skin changes because of immunotherapy: Your skin might become itchy, pigmented and form rashes. You might also lose hair on your scalp and body.
This article will continue to focus on chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
What is cancer skincare?
As highlighted above, the side effects depend on your body and the treatment. And when the body is at war, you won’t want to worsen the situation. Most times, your doctor / nurse will provide you with an extensive list of things to avoid, but how do you know which skincare products to use and which ones to avoid?
First, you need to research the ingredients to avoid. There is a list below to help you get started. Then, you can proceed to skincare: how to take care of your skin during and after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
8 ingredients to avoid
Some of these ingredients aren’t necessarily bad, but it is best to avoid them if your skin is already sensitive or inflamed. Please take note that the hazard scores for some ingredients are low. Remember that the dose makes the poison. A moderate amount might not affect a healthy person, but that same amount can wreak havoc on your compromised cells. Your skin condition can get worse. Your hormones can get jumbled up. So, better safe than sorry!
- Alcohol. Alcohol equals dry, matte skin. Be on the lookout for skincare products that list denatured Alcohol (or ethanol) as the first ingredient, unless it’s a hand sanitizer. The main issue is that alcohol can increase the penetration of many chemicals into the skin. Hazard score: 1
- Aluminium salts. Commonly found in deodorants and antiperspirants. There is a limited literature available on if this ingredient causes cancer. But there are safer alternatives available, so it is best to avoid products containing it. Examples are aluminum chloride (hazard score 3 – 5), aluminum zirconium trichlorohydrate (hazard score 1 – 3), aluminum chlorohydrate (hazard score 2 – 3), etc.
- Essential oils. These are concentrated extracts from plants. Examples are lavender oil (hazard score 2), peppermint oil (hazard score 4), etc. Essential oils are safe if you have cancer but some have side effects. For instance, in a study published in the Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, scientists found that lavender-containing fragrance has estrogenic properties. It is best to consult with your doctor before you use any essential oil.
- Formaldehyde releasers. Preservatives for increasing the shelf life of products. Studies have shown that they are carcinogenic because they can release formaldehyde into skincare products. They can also cause allergic reactions. Examples include Diazolidinyl Urea (hazard score 3 – 5), DMDM hydantoin (hazard score 3 – 6), etc.
- Fragrance (parfum). Manufacturers don’t fully disclose the chemicals present in their fragrance blend. There have been many reports on fragrance allergy in consumers. For instance, fragrance can contain phthalates, an ingredient that can mimic oestrogens. Hazard score: 8
- Parabens. Often used as preservatives in products and studies have proven that parabens are endocrine disruptors. They can also cause skin allergies. Examples are methylparaben (hazard score: 3 – 4), propylparaben (hazard score: 4 -6), ethylparaben (hazard score: 3), etc.
- Sulphates. They can be too harsh for your skin and there is strong scientific evidence on it being an irritant. Examples are Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (hazard score 1 – 2), Sodium Laureth Sulphate (hazard score 1 – 3), Ammonium Laureth Sulphate (hazard score 1 – 3), etc.
- Talc. Talc is a transparent and absorbent mineral commonly found in cosmetics. It gives a silky finish to the skin. Talc is not safe for you because it can contain traces of asbestos, which is a known carcinogen. Hazard score: 5 – 8.
**Please consult your oncologist or specialist nurse for a comprehensive list of ingredients to avoid.
Cancer skincare during and after radiation therapy
Here are 10 things that you can do to take care of your skin during and after radiation therapy.
- Skip deo. Certain ingredients in perfumes, antiperspirants and deodorants can act as penetration enhancers i.e. they increase the amount of radiation that you get during treatment.
- Less moisture. During your radiation therapy, it is best to keep the treated area dry because you don’t want your skin to develop a moist reaction.
- Keep it clean. Use warm water to wash the treated area daily to prevent infection. Don’t use loofahs or sponges.
- Low pH. You can use a low-pH cleanser or soap to clean your body. Use your hands to apply it and rinse off with water.
- Keep the lines. Don’t scrub off purple treatment marks on your skin because that can cause irritation.
- Simple does it. Since you are trying to keep your skin dry, don’t apply lotions, perfumes or creams on wounds. Though you can moisturize the other part of your body.
- SPF forever. Once an area of your skin undergoes radiation therapy, it becomes more prone to sunburn. So, apply sunscreen (SPF 30 or more) on it for the rest of your life.
- No shave. It is best to avoid shaving. If you need to remove hair from your body, use an electric razor but don’t use shaving cream or after-shave.
- No extreme. dress warm during winter and wear loose clothes during summer because heat and cold can further irritate your skin.
- Be vigilant. inform your oncologist if your skin suddenly starts bleeding, gets a rash or becomes red.
Cancer skincare during and after chemotherapy
Here are 8 things that you can do to take care of your skin during and after chemotherapy.
- Dry isn’t good. don’t use alcohol-based products for your skin so you don’t lose the little moisture in your skin.
- Fragrance-free. You shouldn’t just rely on what the skincare product says because there is a difference between unscented and fragrance-free products. Check the ingredients list and make sure it doesn’t contain fragrance or parfum.
- Sun safety. You need to protect your skin from sunlight by using zinc oxide physical sunscreen (SPF 30 or more) and sun-protective lip balm.
- Keep records. While you are on your medications, remember to take pictures and keep notes of any rash or redness that appear on your skin.
- Be gentle. Avoid taking hot showers that will further dry out your skin. It is best to shower with lukewarm water.
- More moisture. Instead of drying your skin after a shower, use fragrance-free lotion or natural butter to seal in the moisture.
- No exfoliation. If your skin becomes scaly or itchy, it might get worse if you use exfoliants (scrubs, retinols, peel-off masks). You need to think “soothing” instead of “exfoliation”. You can try an oatmeal mask or anti-itch cream to relieve itchy skin.
- Replace makeup. You can wear makeup, but don’t use the ones you were using before your chemotherapy. It is best to get new ones to minimize your risk of infection.
Various side effects can pop up anytime but the good news is that they won’t last long. You just have to keep track of changes, update your doctor and don’t forget to take care of your skin.
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- Baskar, R. and Itahana, K., 2017. Radiation therapy and cancer control in developing countries: Can we save more lives?. International Journal of Medical Sciences, 14(1), pp.13-17.
- Yuan, R., Hou, Y., Sun, W., Yu, J., Liu, X., Niu, Y., Lu, J. and Chen, X., 2017. Natural products to prevent drug resistance in cancer chemotherapy: a review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1401(1), pp.19-27.
- Mayo Clinic. 2019. Cancer Surgery: Physically Removing Cancer. [online] Available at: <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-surgery/art-20044171> [Accessed 23 June 2020].
- Cancer.Net. 2020. Understanding Targeted Therapy. [online] Available at: <https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/personalized-and-targeted-therapies/understanding-targeted-therapy#:~:text=Targeted%20therapy%20is%20a%20cancer,growth%2C%20like%20blood%20vessel%20cells> [Accessed 23 June 2020].
- National Cancer Institute. 2019. Immunotherapy For Cancer. [online] Available at: <https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunotherapy> [Accessed 23 June 2020].
Disclaimer: All Information provided is not a substitute for medical advice for your specific condition. It is intended for your general knowledge only.