How to protect your skin against cancer treatments

How to protect your skin against cancer treatments

From hair loss to nausea, cancer treatment and its side effects can be difficult to cope with.

But few people realise the impact that these treatments can have on the skin.

Dr Justine Hextall, a consultant dermatologist, says that different treatments can affect patients in a variety of ways.

For example, chemotherapy targets cancer cells which have a ‘high turnover’ – meaning they are replaced quickly – but some healthy cells in the body also act like this.

Dr Justine says, ‘Other cells in our body that have a high turnover are skin, hair and oral mucosa amongst others, as such common side effects of chemotherapy are dry irritated sensitive skin, hair loss and mouth ulcers.’

Radiotherapy will also have an impact on the skin, depending on the dose and duration, while if cancer is being treated surgically, patients will have to manage scarring.

There are also newer therapies that cause different issues. ‘Newer targeted therapies can have very specific side effects such as acneiform facial rashes, dermatitis and UV induced skin toxicity,’ says Dr Justine.

So how do you protect your skin during cancer treatment? Dr Justine says it’s a good idea to avoid ingredients that could irritate the skin.

She explains, ‘When receiving radiotherapy, the skin will invariably become red and irritated like sunburn.

‘This ‘sunburnt’ skin barrier is more likely to be irritated by certain ingredients such as perfumes and preservatives.’

It’s important to remember that products marked ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ can still cause a reaction too.

Dr Justine says: ‘I would advise looking for products specifically created for sensitive skin.

‘And there are some ingredients that I would avoid until the skin has settled. For example, it may be wise to reduce or stop potentially irritating actives such as retinols, AHA’s and BHA’s, even some vitamin C products may be difficult to tolerate on this newly sensitive skin.

‘Some good news though – as sun damaged cells are often targeted by chemotherapies, many patients find their skin beautifully renewed after many of these treatments.’

When it comes to post surgery scars, they benefit from sensitive products too. ‘Look for ingredients that will calm this skin, protect against infection and promote skin healing,’ says Justine.

‘Finally make sure that any new scars are protected against UV exposure to prevent unwanted post inflammatory pigmentation that can take many months to fade.’

And, if you know you’re about to undergo cancer treatment, try to prepare your skin. Dr Justine says, ‘Make sure the skin barrier is as calm, hydrated and robust as possible, especially before undergoing radiotherapy.

‘Ensure that you have an understanding of the likely skin side effects of your treatment and a plan for how to tackle these.

‘Finally, this is a marathon, not a sprint, be kind to yourself.

‘Take that bath, get plenty of sleep and focus on ‘good enough’. Work can wait, as can the washing and ironing.

‘Put yourself first – your body will thank you later.’

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