Cancer treatments take a toll on the whole body. Healthy cells are sometimes damaged in the pursuit of eliminating cancer cells— this is unavoidable. People with cancer often notice changes in their skin. The impacts on your skin will vary based on your type of cancer and treatment plan. There’s no one solution to prevent damaged skin from cancer treatment, but small actions add up. Start with what you can do right now, then build as needed.
Here are some of the best ways to repair damaged skin from cancer treatment and to revitalize your skin cells.
How cancer treatment affects skin
Cancer treatments are designed to target and destroy rapidly growing cells, with cancer cells as the primary target. However, hair, nail, and skin cells also grow rapidly and often bear the brunt of chemotherapy and some types of radiation therapy.
Some of the common side effects of radiation therapy include itching, dryness, or peeling. You may notice these side effects in the days after a dose of radiation or in the weeks after treatment ends. One of the well-known side effects of radiation therapy treatment is a radiation burn or rash.
Chemotherapy and immunotherapy can have similar effects. You may also develop acne or develop a rash.
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What does chemo rash look like?
Chemo rash typically presents as a collection of small pimples or blisters. You may also experience pain and itching. According to the National Cancer Institute, if a chemo rash appears in a place where you previously had some type of radiation therapy, you may be experiencing “radiation recall.” Don’t hesitate to call your cancer care team right away if you experience this issue.
What does a radiation treatment burn look like?
As external radiation treatment passes through the skin during radiation therapy, it is common for the localized skin cells to sustain damage. Those going through treatment for neck cancer and breast cancer tend to be more susceptible.
Also known as radiation dermatitis, a radiation burn looks like a bad sunburn or as though your skin came in contact with extreme heat. This may develop into a moist reaction, in which sores develop. Talk to your cancer care team, as a moist reaction can become infected.
Thinking about chemotherapy and radiation side effects can be intimidating. It’s normal to feel anxious about this experience. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your cancer care team or seek guidance from our Mend Together Support Communities.
Cancer skincare: before or after skin damage
There are several steps you can take to protect your skin before and after chemotherapy and radiation doses. These tips will help minimize agitation and protect your skin during treatment.
1. Wash your clothes with mild, gentle detergent
Swap out chemical-rich brands for brands that are organic and fragrance-free. We like the Honest Company brand.
2. Avoid beauty products with alcohol
Alcohol strips natural oils, leaving our skin dry and flaky. Opt for natural fragrance-free soaps, body washes, and shampoos that don’t contain alcohol, parabens, sulfates, perfumes, or dyes. Using a mild soap with lukewarm water can help prevent further irritation after treatment.
3. Always wear sunscreen with at least SPF 30
Chemotherapy drugs make our skin much more sensitive to light and more easily damaged by UV rays. If you get a sunburn shortly before treatment, you may even see it reappear after treatment. Wear sunscreen and take extra care to protect your scalp if you’re experiencing hair loss.
4. Buy better makeup
Tips for managing dry skin during cancer treatment
Another one of the effects of radiation therapy and chemo is dry, flaky skin. You may notice this at the treatment site or experience dry skin in general as you lose healthy skin cells. Restoring nourishment and giving your skin some TLC will help. Here’s how:
1. Turn down the temperature
Lower the temperature of your showers or baths. Hot water can be very drying to our skin and can be harmful after external radiation therapy. Cool water will also be better for your hair and can be soothing.
2. Add essential oil to your bath
When you run a bath, add a few drops of organic essential oil. It’ll give your skin a silky, moisturized finish. Be careful to avoid “hot” oils, like peppermint, as these can irritate broken skin.
3. Moisturize your whole body
Our skin is our largest organ. It absorbs products into our system, so be thoughtful about what you put on or in it. Give this as much thought as you give to what you eat. Moisturize your entire body (not just your face) every day. Do it right after you get out of the shower or bath, while your skin is still damp. Try an all-natural, organic lotion.
4. Try a nutrient blast
One of our favorite moisturizers is this antioxidant miracle oil. Originally designed to be ingested, this 100% food-grade organic oil is extra healing and nutrient-rich. We use it as a face serum and body lotion for areas of our body that are exceptionally dry or irritated—or have been radiated.
5. Go dewy
Switch from makeup foundations and powders that deliver a matte finish to products that give you a warm, dewy look. Give your skin some space to breathe.
Dealing with Scars from Cancer Treatments
Another one of the side effects from radiation therapy is scarring. It doesn’t always happen, but many of us who go through this type of treatment have lasting results. Here are some of the best lotions for after radiation treatment to help reduce scarring. You can also use them to minimize surgical scars.
1. Moisture-rich salve
If you have severely damaged skin from cancer treatment—including new scars—a moisture-rich salve can soften and create a soothing barrier to trap moisture.
We recommend using products that are organic and loaded with antioxidants. Vitamin E, calendula, sea buckthorn oil, and arnica are a few of our favorites. All of these products are known for their healing, immune boosting, antiseptic and skin-regeneration properties.
2. Tamanu oil
Considered a “sacred gift of nature” in Polynesian culture, Tamanu oil is known for its potent healing properties and regenerating effects. It’s anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and loaded with antioxidants. If you apply it liberally at the site of a radiation burn or scar, it may help your skin heal more quickly.
Skincare after radiation: dealing with radiation burns
You may be wondering what you should put on your skin after radiation. Your skin may feel irritated and sensitive. When practicing skincare after radiation therapy, sensitivity is important. Avoid using extreme hot or cold temperatures and aim for loose-fitting cotton clothing. Your radiation therapy team can help you find what’s right for you.
Here’s how to care for skin after radiation therapy.
1. Use a gentle spray
Sometimes burns from radiation treatment can be painful to touch—so much that rubbing heavy cream on sensitive skin is just not an option. A gentle spray can relieve irritated and inflamed skin with painless application.
2. Burn cream
To soothe, moisturize and speed your skin’s recovery after radiation treatment, try all-natural arnica- and echinacea-infused burn cream. (Arnica and echinacea are loaded with natural healing properties.) For an extra cooling effect, store the cream in your refrigerator and apply it to damaged skin.
3. Coconut oil and seaweed
For a home remedy, apply coconut oil and a moistened sheet of nori seaweed to burned or radiated areas. Cover with a piece of flannel or gauze and let sit for 20 minutes. Many of us love coconut oil for radiation burns, as it creates a nourishing barrier that has anti-inflammatory properties to help with healing burns.
Mouth sores are another unfortunate side effect of cancer treatments. If you have sores from chemo or radiation, these tips can help.
1. Drink water and avoid alcohol
Hydration helps manage dry mouth (xerostomia), naturally. Drink 8 glasses of water every day. Yes, it sounds like a lot—but it works!
2. Avoid certain foods
Tomato juice and citrus juice can irritate your mouth. Salty, spicy, or rough foods (think crusty bread) can also be irritating.
3. Get a softer toothbrush
Switch to a super-soft toothbrush to minimize more damage to your gums.
4. Stop using commercial mouthwashes
Popular brands like Scope and Listerine contain alcohol, which is best to avoid when you have mouth sores. Instead try Biotene, an alcohol-free and sugar-free mouthwash found in most drug stores.
5. Soothe your dry mouth
6. Do mouth rinses throughout the day
To cleanse and soothe your mouth, try a natural warm-water rinse: 4 cups of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of baking soda.
7. Try oil pulling
Want a home remedy? Try the Ayurvedic tradition of “oil pulling,” which is said to remove toxins that may suppress our immune system and disrupt our hormones. When you get out of bed in the morning (before you eat, drink, or brush your teeth), swish 1 tablespoon of sesame or coconut oil in your mouth for 15 minutes.
As the oil mixes with saliva, it begins to pull toxins from the mouth. Spit and rinse with warm water. Alternate between sesame and coconut oil. Each has unique characteristics for detoxification. You can also use cinnamon or mint oil if you like the taste better.
Help heal damaged skin from cancer treatment
As you go through this experience, you may wonder if your skin will ever go back to normal after radiation and chemo. Cancer-related treatments can take their toll. Over time, gentle care and high-quality products guide the healing process. These products can make a significant difference and help minimize pain while healing damaged skin from cancer. For more tips on beauty and cancer, check out our articles on nail care and hair loss.
Tammy Phillip has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Ohio State and is a former Clinical Research Psycho-Oncology Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Keesha Ewers is the Founder/Medical Director of The Academy for Integrative Medicine and Fern Life Clinic in Seattle, Washington. She is an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner, has a PhD in Sexology and is certified in Functional and Ayurvedic medicine.
Lisa Lefebvre is the Founder of Mend Together. She has experience recovering from 8 cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols and hormone suppression therapy.
Information provided here is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your healthcare team for advice tailored to your personal diagnosis and treatment.