Cancer treatments can be very hard on the skin. Whereas chemotherapy may cause dryness, flakiness, and hair loss, radiation can lead to side effects that are similar to those caused by sun damage.
Every patient is different, and treatments often vary too, so how your skin reacts may be different from how someone else’s skin does.
But in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness month, we wanted to remind you of the steps you can take to support your skin while undergoing radiation for breast cancer.
How Radiation Treatments Affect the Skin
Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves to destroy cancer cells. It damages the DNA inside those cells, killing them off so they can no longer cause problems.
Unlike chemotherapy, radiation doesn’t cause skin and hair problems all over, but it can affect the skin where the radiation treatment occurs. It has to pass through the skin to reach the area where the cancer lives, which means the skin may suffer some ill effects.
Common side effects of radiation treatment on the surrounding skin include the following:
- Peeling skin
- Itchy skin
- Red, painful skin
- Dry, flaky skin
- Sensitive skin
- Skin color changes, usually darker or tanned looking
- Burning sensation
- Blistering (sometimes)
When and Where Skin Symptoms Show Up
These types of side effects usually show up within the first 2 weeks of starting radiation therapy and may continue to develop throughout the treatment. Once the treatment is over, the skin will take a while to heal, but will eventually get better. The darkening, however, may last longer than that, up to several months. Sometimes there will be some lasting and permanent color changes.
Some areas of the skin may also react more than others:
- The skin in the upper inner corner of the breast, for example, may become more red or irritated than other areas depending on the angle of the radiation beam.
- The armpit can become irritated because the arm rubs back and forth against the skin there, and because of sweat and hair.
- Most bras rub on the fold under the breast, which can cause irritation and redness.
Some people don’t experience any skin reactions to treatment, others have mild reactions, and still others may have more severe reactions. The risk of skin side effects increases if:
- You have a fair complexion.
- You have large breasts.
- You’ve had recent chemotherapy.
- You’re receiving radiation after mastectomy, and the treatment is a high dose.
How to Care for Skin During Radiation Treatments
To lower your risk of skin side effects, and to treat those you develop, follow these tips:
- Choose skin care products that are nourishing and non-toxic: When treating radiation redness, burns, dryness and flaking, you’ll feel more comfortable and recover more quickly when using natural, nourishing ingredients rather than petroleum-based ingredients. Mineral oil and related ingredients may cover and seal in moisture, but they provide no additional healing properties. Chemical preservatives and fragrances can also contribute to irritation and dryness, and may cause painful reactions, particularly if you have sensitive skin—which most people going through cancer do. CV Skinlabs moisturizing formulas contain aloe, calendula, and anti-itch oat extract, as well as anti-inflammatory and healing ingredients that help soothe and restore skin to its optimum health and vitality.
- Adopt a gentler skincare routine: Before and during radiation treatments, treat your skin with extra gentleness. It’s going to become more fragile as you go, so think of it as a baby’s skin. Avoid hot water–use lukewarm instead. Avoid drying soaps, and use gentle, nontoxic cleansers. Stay away from synthetic fragrances, use only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunscreen, and always cover the area when you go outside. If you live in a dry climate, use a humidifier in your room, and drink plenty of water each day.
- Avoid harsh products: Stay away from all exfoliating products and acids, acne products, alcohols, anti-wrinkle creams, chemical peels, and the like. Use only gentle cleansers and moisturizers on your treated skin.
- Start with healthy skin: Before treatments start, do your best to get your skin in the best condition possible. Make sure it’s well moisturized, as that helps make sure that the skin barrier is strong. Always apply moisturizer right after your bath or shower to seal in moisture. If you have any redness or chaffing, treat that completely before starting treatments. Make sure you’re wearing only soft, comfortable bras that don’t create skin problems. It may be best to avoid underwire styles and to go without bras when possible.
- Find soothing solutions in your kitchen: Once symptoms start to show up, you can treat them with gentle, non-toxic solutions you can find in your kitchen. For very dry skin, try natural oils like olive, almond, or sesame oil. Mix them with your favorite moisturizer if you like. If you need a mild cleanser, try mixing yogurt with honey, about a tablespoon of instant mashed potatoes, and a teaspoon of wheat-germ oil. CV Skinlabs products also contain soothing and ultra-moisturizing ingredients, and are made specifically for medically treated skin.
- To soothe itch: Blend finely ground oatmeal with a little water and spread over the skin like a mask, or add some to your bath and soak. Gently massage itchy areas with an ice cube, then apply a cold compress. A bag of frozen peas works too.
- To cool burns: Try pure aloe gel that’s been cooled in the refrigerator. If you have access to the plant itself, cut off a piece and place the fleshy side directly on the burn. You can also check with your doctor about cooling gel packs. Some cancer survivors recommend emu oil and tamanu oil for soothing and moisturizing. Calendula is also a good one for soothing burned areas. Our Rescue + Relief Spray is perfect for instant relief of burning sensations and itchiness, particularly if you keep it in the refrigerator.
- Moisturize, moisturize: Continue to moisturize the area after treatment. It’s probably best to step up your moisturization, applying a couple of times a day.
- Protect from the sun: You must keep the treated area completely out of the sun. Clothing is your best bet, along with umbrellas and hats. Just don’t expose the area until treatment has been over for at least a month.
CV Skinlabs products are specifically designed for the unique needs of people with the most sensitive, compromised and fragile skin there is. They work to soothe, nourish, moisturize and help repair skin during and after cancer treatments. We invite you to make it easy on yourself, and simply use our products to help soothe skin treated with radiation!
How did you treat skin after radiation treatment?