A cancer diagnosis is often the worst moment of someone’s life. There’s the fear of an uncertain prognosis, the worry about how loved ones will cope, and the intimidating treatment options and confusing medical jargon to deal with all at once. It might seem that skincare is one of the least important things to consider and in many ways, it is. And yet, changes in skin is one of the most commonly reported side effects of cancer treatment, and one that can cause considerable discomfort and distress.
According to Macmillan Cancer Support, chemotherapy can cause a number of skin conditions commonly including discolouration, sensitivity, rashes and extreme dryness. However, it’s not uncommon for patients to also experience breakouts and painful sores, too.
“I have worked with cancer sufferers and their skin through cancer charity Look Good Feel Better,” says Emma Coleman, dermatology nurse and founder of Emma Coleman skincare range. “The skin becomes pale, flaky often and in some cases the sufferers get dermatitis. This can be due to the treatment or certain types of cancers.”
Aside from the emotional toll of skin conditions and the negative effect they can have one self confidence and wellbeing, there’s also an increased risk of infection if the skin is broken and exposed to external bacteria. Of course, this is especially problematic during chemotherapy, which compromises the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off infections.
“Chemotherapy drugs can commonly affect the skin,” explains Consultant Dermatologist Dr Ophelia Veraitch at Cranley Clinic. “The skin is responsible for keeping out the bad—microbes, allergens, and chemicals—and retaining the good, like moisture, keeping skin soft and smooth. This is why it’s extra important to look after this skin barrier during chemotherapy.”
Here, we asked the experts for four top tips to best care for your skin when going through cancer.
According to the experts, a high, broad-spectrum SPF is a must as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can make skin much more prone to UV damage. “Protect your body with a wide brim hat and long-sleeved clothing – especially around midday when the sun is at its strongest and try to limit the time you spend outside during peak sunlight hours and avoid tanning beds,” says Dr Veraitch.
AVOID DRYING INGREDIENTS
There is evidence to suggest that certain preservatives and foaming agents used in skincare, cosmetics and wash products (namely parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate), can irritate the skin and cause dryness. Opt for sulphate-free formulas, especially when choosing a cleanser, and choose one that contains high amounts of moisturising ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid instead.
Another ingredient to steer clear of is perfume. “Heavily perfumed products may further irritate a rash or cause dermatitis, itchy and flaky skin,” explains Emma. “Go scent-free completely to avoid any risk of reaction.”
Dr Veraitch agrees; “Avoid common allergens like fragrance, alcohol, preservatives, and botanical essential oils, which can be irritating or, even worse, cause an allergic reaction. Avoid harsh ingredients that remove skin lipids and lead to irritation and a broken skin barrier.”
“Exfoliating products remove skin build-up of dead cells and that process doesn’t happen when you’re going through a cancer treatment. So skip the scrubs, AHAs, and glycolic acid,” advises Dr Veraitch. It’s also a good idea to put any retinol products on pause, not only because they act as an exfoliant but also because retinol makes skin more sensitive the sunlight.
INVEST IN A GOOD LIP BALM
“The lips and mouth can also be affected by cancer treatment, so invest in a good lip balm,” says Emma. “Use one with antioxidants and Vitamins A, C and E, as these help to build new tissue”.