Taking good care of our skin is important, but it’s event more crucial during treatment for cancer. Chemotherapy can cause many problems for skin such as dryness, itching, redness, and peeling. Some people may develop a rash or sun sensitivity, causing you to sunburn easily. Let’s take a look at some of the most common problems and how you can help alleviate the symptoms.
Problem: Dryness and peeling
We all get dry skin from time to time, but chemotherapy can make skin chronically dry and irritated. And it’s not just a cosmetic problem - dry skin can become inflamed, which can lead to infection, so don’t ignore dryness before it gets painful and potentially hazardous.
The best thing to do is take a look at your skincare before you begin your treatment - around a week before you undergo your first course of treatment would be ideal - and introduce the right kind of products. This will ensure your skin is in optimum condition, making it harder for the negative effects of treatment to affect your skin.
There are a number of things you can do during treatment to help soothe and protect dry, damaged skin:
- Use moisturisers with gentle, fragrance-free formulas. Look for products with ingredients like urea, ceramides, glycerin, and shea butter - these are all active ingredients which work to moisturise and repair dry, cracked skin. You can also add something like Vaseline on top of your moisturiser overnight - this will help lock in moisture. Look for “cream” or “ointment” type moisturisers rather than those labelled “lotions” as these will be thicker and better at hydrating and soothing dryness.
- Use gentle, fragrance-free soaps and laundry detergents to avoid further irritation to the skin.
- Avoid long, hot showers or baths, and make sure you moisturise within 10-15 minutes of getting out of the water to keep moisture inside the body.
- Ammonium lactate cream can increase moisture - ask your doctor or pharmacist for some as these creams are only available by prescription and over-the-counter.
Itching can be caused by dryness or irritation, however some patients experience itching that isn’t related to dryness - itching can actually be caused by cancer treatment or by the cancer itself, especially those related to skin, such as malignant melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma.
It’s hard to find relief, and sometimes the only thing you want to do is scratch, which just makes things worse. Thankfully, there are some remedies which can help soothe itchy skin.
Solution: No matter how much you itch, try not to scratch your skin as this will only make it more sore and irritated. What’s more, scratching can break the skin, which can lead to infections. Try these instead:
- Try rubbing in a non-perfumed moisturising cream to help cool and soothe the itch. This will also help with any dryness.
- If itching is severe and persistent, try asking your doctor to prescribe a corticosteroid cream to reduce inflammation.
- Taking an antihistamine may help if the itching is allergy-related.
- Calamine is an excellent anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory lotion that can help relieve itching.
- Oats have long been recognised for their ability to soothe itching, so try taking a lukewarm oatmeal bath. Add a handful of oats to a muslin cloth and secure the end with an elastic band. Add this to your bath as it is running - the water should turn a pale milky colour.
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing. This will reduce friction and the natural cotton fibres are less likely to irritate than synthetics.
Note that acute itching that occurs while taking certain chemotherapy drugs may be a sign that you are having an allergic reaction to that drug. It’s always best to ask your doctor about any persistent itching.
Redness could be caused by a number of factors, including a reaction, flushing, or hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin). It can also be caused by sun damage, which can be caused by the skin’s hypersensitivity to sunlight during treatment. Here’s what you can do to prevent and treat redness:
- Avoid extremes in temperature - this can cause skin to flush.
- If your skin is painful, swollen and irritated, try taking an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen, and consulting your doctor.
- Apply a fragrance-free, sensitive-formulated moisturiser to help soothe skin. Look for ingredients like aloe vera, calendula and zinc oxide, which are soothing and anti-inflammatory.
- Avoid any harsh ingredients which may irritate skin, causing redness to worsen. Avoid essential oils, fragrances, citrus, alcohols, dyes and sulfates.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for hyperpigmentation, however you can try using creams formulated for people who suffer from rosacea - and make sure you apply plenty of sunscreen, as UV rays can further darken hyperpigmented skin.
Skin that is undergoing cancer treatment can be intolerant and easily irritated. This can cause the above skin conditions, so it’s important to tackle the problems before they occur. Our best advice is to steer clear of heavily perfumed lotions with lots of irritating ingredients, and use plenty of sunscreen as the skin will be more susceptible to sun damage. Moisturise often and consult your doctor if your symptoms are persistent and severe. We hope this has helped!