If you’re going through cancer treatments, you know: they’re not great for your skin.
Chemotherapy kills off fast-growing cancer cells, but that means it also tends to kill off skin, hair, and nail cells, too.
Radiation treatments aren’t much better, though they are localized. But women may experience redness, inflammation, swelling, and sometimes pain at the treatment site.
October is Breast Cancer awareness month, so we wanted to return to our roots and talk about how you can help your skin through breast cancer treatments. With a little extra TLC, you can feel much more comfortable, and that’s important to your long-term healing.
What Happens to Skin During Cancer Treatments?
Healthy skin is always replacing itself. Old cells rise to the surface and are sloughed off by cleaning and exfoliation, while new cells form and take their place. This is what keeps skin healthy and young looking.
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation interrupt that cell division process, slowing the normal turnover. They also kill fast-growing cells on the surface of the skin, which makes it harder for the skin to hold onto moisture and shield the body from bacteria and other substances. Lipids (or fats) between the skin layers are reduced, opening up spaces between them-sometimes big enough to let bacteria through.
These changes cause your skin to become drier, as well as more fragile. You may notice that your skin seems thinner, or takes longer to heal. Side effects can include redness, itching, irritation, flaking, and dryness.
10 Changes to Make to Your Daily Skin Care Routine
Because of these changes, it’s also harder for skin to protect itself, or to regenerate, which means that it may no longer be able to tolerate alcohols, synthetic fragrances, and harsh preservatives in conventional skin care products.
In fact, when you’re going through cancer treatments, it’s more important than ever that you choose non-toxic skin care products. Chemicals can more easily penetrate fragile skin and get into your bloodstream, where they may affect your healing process. CV Skinlabs products were made specifically for medically treated skin, and contain only safe and organic ingredients that soothe and repair. Be particularly careful to avoid fragrance and other ingredients, such as those we have listed in our Ingredients to Avoid.
Dry skin can create cracks, opening the door for products applied to the skin to get inside the bloodstream. That means you must be much more tender and careful with your skin. Changing your daily habits can make you more comfortable and help your skin and body heal and repair.
- Use only mild, fragrance-free soaps and hair-care products.
- When using a towel, pat the area dry rather than rubbing.
- Use a safe sunscreen (like zinc oxide) whenever going outside, on all exposed areas of skin. Cover tender areas with clothes and hats.
- Avoid perfumes and alcohols.
- Use lukewarm water instead of hot to wash with-hot water can increase itching and irritation.
- Use an electric razor rather than a blade to shave when you need to. (Electric razors are less likely to result in cuts that can lead to infection.)
- Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing that feels good on your skin.
- Apply a nontoxic moisturizer while skin is still damp to seal in the moisture. Our Calming Moisture and Body Repair Lotion both help calm inflammation, soothe itching, encourage wound-healing, and help increase the comfort of skin.
- If the air is dry where you live, use a humidifier in your room.
- Add baking soda or ground-up oatmeal to the tub to soothe irritated skin.
How to Soothe Common Cancer-Caused Skin Conditions
In addition to being more careful and gentle with your skin overall, there are some more specific things you can do to deal with side effects like flushing, radiation burns, and the like.
Flushing and Burn-Like Pain
Sometimes your skin may flush or feel burned (even though it looks fine) as a result of treatment. Flushing is a temporary redness that comes up on your face and neck. Chemotherapy drugs can cause it, although spicy foods, caffeine, stress, and alcohol can also encourage it.
Soothing ingredients like calendula, cucumber, aloe, and oatmeal can help calm the skin so the redness fades. (We use these ingredients in our products for these reasons!) Make sure you’re avoiding the sun and any harsh products that will further irritate skin.
One thing to try: Our Rescue + Relief Spray. It’s specifically designed to take heat away from skin and help cool and soothe. Keep it in the refrigerator for optimal results.
Radiation can cause side effects on the skin around the treatment site, including redness, dryness, itchiness, and thin, weeping wounds. There are a number of things you can do to make your skin more comfortable.
- Use our Restorative Skin Balm on affected areas. It’s made specifically to help soothe dry, red, and inflamed skin.
- Try cool compresses on the area for short periods of time. (Be sure they’re clean to prevent bacteria.) Be careful, however, not to expose the treated area to extreme hot or cold. Do not use heating pads, hot water bottles, or ice packs.
- 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. The soothing effects of this plant are amazing.
- Calendula, vitamin E, and Manuka honey can also help soothe skin and encourage healing.
- Soothing hydrogel sheets and packs are available from medical and home health suppliers. They’re sterile and hydrating and are easy to work with.
- If your skin is too tender to touch, try sunburn-cooling sprays from reputable manufacturers that use safe, natural ingredients. (Our Rescue + Relief Spray works great!)
Wounds that Won’t Heal
Cancer treatments can rob your body of the nutrients it needs to heal itself. If you have skin wounds that are taking a long time to get better, try these nutrition tips:
- Make sure you’re getting adequate calories and protein.
- Vitamins C and A optimize healing and recovery.
- Vitamin E supports wound healing.
- Zinc deficiency impairs protein production; restoring zinc to healthy levels returns wound healing to a healthy rate. (Take extra zinc only if you are deficient-excess zinc can be detrimental.)
Other tips for wound care include:
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after changing dressings.
- Remove dressings carefully (to avoid reopening the wound).
- Clean wounds daily (don’t rub).
- Always use new dressings and bandages.
- Don’t pick at scabs.
- Eat vitamin-rich foods like citrus fruits, leafy vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and eggs.
Unfortunately, some cancer treatments can damage the cells in your mouth, creating mouth ulcers, or causing the ones you used to have to appear more often. Swishing ice chips in your mouth while receiving chemotherapy may protect it from the drugs. (Cold temperatures slow blood flow, making it more difficult for the blood to carry drugs to cold areas.)
Drink plenty of water, eat a balanced diet, and get into a steady, thorough mouth-care routine (if you don’t have one already). Avoid alcohol- based mouth rinses. Choose those with natural ingredients, or try saltwater or baking soda and water (1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon in 8 ounces).
Rinsing before a meal may soothe your mouth enough to make it easier to eat. Cold popsicles before a meal can also help numb the pain. Your dentist may also have a pain-relieving rinse you can use. Cut your food into smaller pieces, and remember-the sores will go away after your treatment ends.
Healthy lips will help promote a healthy mouth, and since lips tend to get dry and chapped during treatment, be sure to keep them moist. Avoid products with chemicals and go for natural and organic brands. Our Restorative Skin Balm works great as a lip balm during treatments.
Have you experienced these types of cancer-treatment side effects?