Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation are a necessity for many cancer patients. While it accomplishes its main goal of killing cancer cells, unwanted side effects often include dry skin, brittle nails, and hair loss. According to Elizabeth Comen, MD, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the exact effects differ from patient to patient and tend to correspond to the course of treatment they are undergoing. Even so, there are some commonalities. “Broadly, chemotherapy can make the skin drier and itchier,” she says. “The skin can also become more sensitive to the sun and hyperpigmentation.”
The good news, she notes, is that, “once a specific treatment ends, skin changes usually resolve within a few weeks.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to mitigate some of the side effects in the meantime. To better understand the skin changes that can occur during cancer treatment — and how you can treat them — we’ve spoken to top oncologists, dermatologists, and skincare experts.
How Skin Changes During Cancer Treatment
“Chemotherapy kills rapidly growing cells in the body, and most treatments cannot be perfectly tailored just to kill the cancer cells,” says Heather D. Rogers, MD, a Seattle-based board certified dermatologist and founder of Doctor Rogers Restore. “Instead, the chemotherapy kills anything that is growing quickly.” This, she explains, is why people lose their hair, too. “It is a fantastic, life-saving treatment, but your whole body suffers through chemotherapy — the good cells and the bad cells,” she notes
Radiation is also tough on the skin. “The targeted radiation has to get to the organ being treated through the skin, making the skin right in its blast path,” Dr. Rogers shares. As she explains, when people go through radiation, their skin becomes red and then begins to lose its integrity. It first presents “as eczema-like changes” that “can progress to open sores,” she adds. Cynthia Besteman, a breast cancer survivor who created Violets Are Blue skincare as a result of her own experience, agrees. Besteman notes that both chemo and radiation “suck up” all of the skin’s moisture.
Because of these effects, Dr. Comen says that there are dermatologists who work hand-in-hand with patients as they undergo cancer treatments. In her opinion, a dermatologist should be part of the medical team for both preventative and corrective purposes. “It is important that patients not only see their dermatologist for routine skin checks, but also check in with their dermatologist should they be undergoing treatment for any type of cancer,” she says.
How to Deal with Skin Changes During Cancer Treatment
The body’s main job during cancer treatment is an obvious one: to fight the cancer. A skincare routine during this time should be one that is nourishing, restorative, and, most importantly, feels good. During this time, “everything you use on your skin will be more absorbed, so you need to be selective to prevent unwanted reactions,” Dr. Rogers cautions. As such, you should avoid exfoliation and active ingredients like hydroxy acids (alpha, beta, or poly), retinols, and even vitamin C.
Of course, that doesn’t mean a patient needs to forgo their skincare routine all together — especially if it maintains a sense of normalcy (and maybe even pampering) during an otherwise challenging time. Karen Ballou, a cancer survivor and founder of Immunocologie, recommends looking for ingredients that are nourishing, hydrating, and anti-inflammatory. Strengthening the skin barrier and restoring moisture are the name of the game, and formulas with glycerin, ceramides, calendula, urea, hyaluronic acid (HA), and allantoin can all help.
Since the gentlest blends can irritate compromised skin, it’s important to patch test products (even ones you’ve used successfully for years) before beginning or continuing use. When it comes to products that pack a gentle-yet-nourishing punch, below are a few that fit the bill:
- Violets Are Blue Beloved Facial Cleanser ($42): A gentle face wash that doesn’t foam, Besteman carefully selected the oils in this product to help preserve moisture — even during treatments that can have a drying effect on the skin.
- Saje Calm-O-Mile Gel Cleanser ($22): For those who prefer a gel cleanser, this formula was designed for sensitive skin types and even smells soothing. Blue chamomile, squalane, and aloe vera leave skin feeling fresh but not stripped.
- Immunocologie Hyaluronic Serum ($135): Everyone can benefit from hyaluronic acid, the hero ingredient of this calming and hydrating serum that will help plump up skin without sensitivity or irritation.
- Doctor Rogers Restore Face Cream ($72): This gentle moisturizer nourishes sensitive skin with soothing, skin barrier-boosting ingredients like niacinamide and centella asiatica.
- Peet Rivko Balancing Face Oil ($44): Organic avocado, jojoba, and prickly pear oils feed the skin essential fatty acids.
- EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 ($31): It’s especially crucial to focus on sun protection when undergoing treatment for cancer. A perennial dermatologist favorite, this zinc-based broad-spectrum SPF also features HA and niacinamide.
While many of the sensitivities and skin concerns that arise during chemo and radiation resolve after treatment, patients don’t have to take a wait and see approach. “Oncologists work routinely with dermatologists, and we recognize how important it is that for many undergoing cancer treatment… feeling good also means looking good,” Dr. Comen says.
And, if you’re curious how minimally invasive aesthetic treatments fit into that look-good-feel-good mantra: “Patients routinely ask about fillers and Botox® during cancer treatment,” she shares. “Depending on the therapy given, it may still be possible to pursue these cosmetic procedures.” Her advice? “Talk to your dermatologist about what's right for you.”
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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