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Chemotherapy is an aggressive treatment for many cancer patients, and the drugs used can often cause severe skin damage. Intentional skincare for chemotherapy can help to prevent and support the healing process. This can help to protect the skin from the drying and cracking that typically occurs with chemotherapy.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of chemical drug therapy meant to destroy rapidly growing cells in the body. It’s usually used to treat cancer, as cancer cells grow and divide faster than other cells.

Chemotherapy is often used in combination with other therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or hormone therapy. The use of combination therapy depends on:

  • The stage and type of cancer you have
  • Your overall health
  • Previous cancer treatments you’ve had
  • The location of the cancer cells
  • Your treatment preferences

It’s considered a systemic treatment, which means it affects the entire body.

Be So Well Blog - skincare for chemotherapy patients - doctor sitting with an older female chemo patient

How chemotherapy affects the skin

Some types of chemotherapy can cause your skin to become dry, itchy, red or darker, or peel. You may develop a minor rash or sunburn easily; this is called photosensitivity. Some people also have skin pigmentation changes.

If you’ve had radiation therapy, chemotherapy can cause a skin reaction known as radiation recall. In this reaction, a sunburn-like rash develops on areas of the body that have been treated with radiation.

Most of the time, prevention is the best way to manage skin problems. Sometimes an itch, pain, or discomfort is the first sign that a skin condition is beginning. The common skin conditions are:

Rashes

Among the common causes of rashes are chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplants. A rash that resembles acne or measles may appear in some patients.

Dry and itchy skin

Pruritus is a term used for itchy skin, while xerosis is a term that refers to dry skin. Leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma patients may experience this side effect more often. Chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow transplants are also known to cause dry, itchy skin.

Sensitivity to light

Depending on the type of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplants, your skin may become more sensitive to light. Such a condition is known as photosensitivity.

Radiation therapy-related skin problems

In addition to damaging cancer cells, radiation therapy affects healthy skin cells as well. In some cases, this causes the skin to peel, itch, or hurt. Damage usually begins one or two weeks after treatment. The condition typically improves after a few weeks. Your doctor may need to alter your radiation therapy dosage or schedule until the condition improves.

Chemotherapy extravasation or leaks

Chemotherapy extravasation is the process by which chemotherapy leaks out of a vein and onto your skin. Although it can cause pain or burning if you catch it in time and seek medical attention for any open wounds that may result from this type of medication administration, no cause for alarm.

Malignant wounds

When cancer breaks the skin, it can cause a malignant wound. Many types of cancer can cause these wounds, but they are most common with skin cancer and breast cancer. Malignant wounds can easily become infected and be very painful or itchy.

Be So Well Blog - skincare for chemotherapy patients - women applying cream to her face

How to do skincare for chemotherapy

Patients can minimize skin problems about one week before starting chemotherapy, rather than waiting until symptoms develop after treatment begins. During treatment, the regimen may be continued as needed.

Chemotherapy can be hard on the body, and it can take a toll on the skin. One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is skin damage, which can be prevented and treated.

Chemotherapy skin problems: how to prevent them

  • Avoid taking long, hot showers or baths.
  • Use gentle, fragrance-free soaps and laundry detergent.
  • Use moisturizers, preferably creams or ointments rather than lotions, because the thicker consistency is better at preventing skin dehydration. Apply the cream or ointment within 15 minutes of showering. Reapply moisturizer at night and moisturize your hands every time after you wash them.
  • If your skin is very dry and flaky, ammonium lactate cream can increase moisture. These creams are available by prescription and over-the-counter. 
  • Some chemotherapy drugs make the skin more susceptible to sunburn. Use a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30, and make sure that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Protection against UVA requires ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or avobenzone.
Be So Well Blog - skincare for chemotherapy patients - women applying oil to her face

Try the Modicum Skin Care’s Compassionate Care: Recovery Line, a creation that stemmed out of a passion for nutrition and wellness. The Compassionate Care Line is a plant-based skincare line created for cancer patients who are undergoing treatment and recovery. Throughout the healing process, the serum and balm provide comfort and relief from many of the side effects of conventional cancer treatment.

Self-compassion is essential in the healing and recovery process. These small acts and self-care rituals ultimately create a sense of well-being, groundedness, and self-love. The product line consists of wound-healing properties and is formulated with ingredients that are anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and promote tissue regeneration, 

Chemotherapy skincare is important to prevent damage and heal any existing damage. There are many products and regimens available, so it is essential to find the best one for your skin type. Remember to always consult with a doctor before starting any new routine.

Additional References:

  1. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/cancer-control/en/booklets-flyers/chemotherapy-what-it-is-how-it-helps.pdf
  2. https://www.self.com/gallery/skin-care-products-to-use-during-chemotherapy
  3. https://www.cancercare.org/publications/76-caring_for_your_skin_during_cancer_treatment
  4. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/features/appearance-during-chemo