Skin, Lip and Body Care

How to Care for Fragile Skin During Cancer Treatments

+ Rebecca

I’ll never forget when my father was going through cancer.

He developed a nasty acne-like rash on his face. It was not only uncomfortable, it was embarrassing. After all, he had to go to work at the office.

With my makeup artist experience, I thought I could help him. I bought a high-end sensitive skin cream, but when he tried it, it only made his skin worse. I couldn’t believe it.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about medically treated skin. In honor of October, breast cancer awareness month, I wanted to share some important tips for taking care of fragile, sensitive, overstressed skin.

It’s not the same as healthy skin. Medical treatments like radiation and chemotherapy can wreak havoc on skin’s outer layer, reducing its ability to hang onto moisture and resulting in thin, papery, dry and flaky skin that itches and hurts. Some treatments, like those my father took, can also increase risk of acne-like rashes, redness, inflammation, and irritation.

If you or a loved one is going through cancer treatments, I hope these tips will help.

1. Adopt a More Tender Routine

When you’re going through cancer, you need to treat your skin like a baby’s skin. It’s sensitive, reactive, flushed, thin, dry, and vulnerable. Water that’s too hot, pressure that’s too hard, soap that’s too harsh-all these things increase your risk for abrasions, bruising, tearing, more dryness, flaking, irritation, redness, and itching.

We’re so used to rushing through our routines that it can feel strange, even self-indulgent, to slow down and be tender with ourselves. But your skin is fragile, now, and you need to treat it that way.

Slow down and give yourself extra attention. If you do so, your skin will respond by being less irritated and more smooth and soft. Try these tips:

  • Avoid hot water-it makes you itch more. Use lukewarm instead.
  • Pat (don’t rub) dry.
  • Avoid drying soaps. Use organic, nontoxic cleansers. (Read your labels!)
  • Apply a nontoxic heavy moisturizing cream when skin is still damp to seal in the moisture.
  • Use chemical-free sunscreen every day, and avoid long sun exposure. Wear a hat and sunglasses, and opt for shady areas when you do go outside.
  • Avoid synthetic fragrances always.
  • Use a humidifier in your room.
  • Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
  • Sleep with a satin pillowcase so your skin can move freely over the material without tugging or pulling.

2. Find Solutions in Your Kitchen

If you’re experiencing itching, flaking, pain, irritation and redness, the solution could be right in your kitchen cupboards or refrigerator.

Some examples:

  • Massage itchy areas with an ice cube, or cover them with a cool compress.
  • Rub the inside of an avocado over your face, leave for 15 minutes, and rinse dry for smoother, softer skin.
  • Mash ripe bananas in a bowl, add some honey, and apply to face for 10-15 minutes for a gentle hydrating mask.
  • For very dry skin, try natural oils like olive, almond, or sesame.
  • For a mild cleanser, try mixing a little yogurt with some honey, lemon juice, a tablespoon of instant mashed potatoes, a bit of finely sliced apple, and a teaspoon of wheat-germ oil.
  • To reduce itch and redness, blend natural oatmeal with a little water, spread over skin, wait 10 minutes, and rinse.

3. Use Safe, Gentle Products

What your skin could put up with before cancer is different than what it can handle after cancer. If you haven’t already restocked your cupboards with organic, non-toxic skin care, now is the time.

Make sure you avoid the following, in particular:

  • Acids like retinol, salicylic, and glycolic. Though your skin may usually respond well to these exfoliating ingredients, fragile skin will not. Be careful-they’re fond in all kinds of products, even foundations.
  • Acne products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and other ingredients that can dry and irritate fragile skin.
  • Alcohol, menthol, and peppermint can further dry, sting, and irritate your skin.
  • Anti-wrinkle creams-they’re helpful when your skin is strong, but they’re too harsh while you’re going through treatment.
  • Chemical peels-they use powerful acids that could cause burns and permanent scarring on compromised skin.
  • Eyebrow and upper lip waxing-much too harsh during this time.
  • Microdermabrasion-it’s gentler than a peel, but still assaults the skin with sand-type crystals that can cause irritation, inflammation, and breakouts.

4. Pump Up the Moisture

Cancer and other medical treatments affect your skin’s natural moisture level. Your glands don’t secrete as much oil as before, so even if you’re gentle and caring during your regular routine, you may find that your skin needs more nourishment.

Choose brands that are safe, clean and free of potentially harmful chemicals. When you’re reading labels, look for these types of ingredients:

  • CV Skinlabs products! Our products were made specifically for medically treated skin.
  • Aloe vera
  • Chamomile
  • Calendula
  • Honey
  • Cucumbers
  • Jojoba oil
  • Shea butter
  • Rose hip oil
  • Rosemary
  • Oat extract
  • Olive oil
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Peptides
  • Vitamin E

5. Protect from the Sun

The sun is enemy number-one when it comes to damaging skin and accelerating the appearance of aging.

But when you’re struggling through cancer treatments, the sun can be even more dangerous, and may result in burns and scarring. That’s because cancer treatments and medications usually make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s damaging UV rays. Treatments like radiation and chemotherapy kill off the cells that form the outer layer of skin, exposing the more tender cells underneath.

The solution, fortunately, is fairly simple. Apply a safe sun block with an SPF of 30 or higher every day, even if it’s cloudy outside. (Zinc oxide is best, followed by titanium dioxide.) Then don’t forget to reapply as needed. Even the best products fade after a couple hours, or become less effective if you get wet or perspire.

During treatment, it pays to be extra careful. Avoid direct sunlight, especially during the hours of ten a.m. to three p.m., when the sun’s rays are at their most powerful.

When you go out, get used to wearing a wide-brimmed hat or scarf-especially if you lost your hair, as the scalp is very sensitive to the sun! Add long sleeves, pants, and even gloves when in the middle of treatment to protect yourself.

Don’t forget your lips. They can be just as damaged through sun exposure. Avoid balms with menthol or petroleum jelly, as they actually make the skin dryer over time. Our Restorative Skin Balm works great, but whatever you choose, look for formulas with natural waxes and oils that are more likely to help keep your lips soft and smooth.

Note: Find more tips like these, plus much more, in Britta’s book, When Cancer Hits.

Have cancer treatments changed your skin?

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