As surreal as they may seem, all those changes you experience in skin color, texture, and feel during radiation therapy are pretty standard. In fact, as many as 90 percent of cancer patients who undergo radiation will experience radiation dermatitis. Those symptoms can range from mild irritation to itchy redness—and even sometimes result in painful sores.
Because of these changes, it is incredibly important to switch to skincare products that are safe to use during radiation. Bubble baths, exfoliators, scented lotions, perfumes, and even some antiperspirants need to be swapped for gentler, physician-approved products, at least for a little while. However, finding the best radiation skincare products doesn’t have to be a total bummer. There’s still some room for safe pampering even during radiation, as long as the products you’re using are doctor-approved. The most important part of choosing a new radiation-safe skincare routine is to make sure to take any skincare product you’re using to your cancer team and have a doctor review the ingredients before they ever touch radiation-sensitive skin.
At Happy 2nd Birthday, many of our products are specifically crafted for those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. But we believe in sharing the love and promoting other brands that also do a great job in this arena—we just want everyone undergoing chemo and radiation therapy to find a product that works for them, and is safe to use. So for those who are wondering what radiation-safe ingredients to look for, here’s a handy guide to choosing the best skincare products for radiation therapy.
Best soaps for patients undergoing radiation therapy
During radiation therapy, skin can become red, dry, itchy, and even painful, and it’s pretty understandable that many patients might not be super keen on having the area pelted with shower water while washing with soap. But doctors agree that skin affected by radiation needs to be cleaned every day with a fragrance-free, mild soap in order to reduce the risk of infection.
When choosing an effective-yet-gentle cleanser for skin during radiation, you’ll want to opt for a formula with a low pH level. The pH indicates how acidic or basic a formula is, and many brands list the pH (which should be somewhere between 4.5-6) right on the label. But even if those numbers aren’t listed, keep in mind that low pH formulas tend to be gel, milky, or creamy, while foaming formulas generally have a higher pH. While it might feel luxurious to treat skin sensitive from radiation to a sudsy lather, it’s probably best to skip the bubbles until after treatment.
Some great brands that make safe products include Basis and Cetaphil, which are fairly easy to find at most grocery or drug stores, but there are ways to pamper sensitive areas with radiation skincare products that aren’t typical drug store fare, according to Dr. Adam Friedman, dermatologist and professor of medicine at The George Washington University, as long as patients do their homework, consult with their doctors, and use products as directed.
Happy 2nd Birthday’s Calming Creamy Cleanser is another safe radiation skincare product, formulated especially for cancer patients, and deeply hydrating and soothing thanks
to mango seed butter and kukui oil.
“It’s important to use whatever product someone selects
on damp skin and with greater frequency,” says Dr. Friedman.
Best moisturizers for radiation patients
When it comes to effectively moisturizing during the radiation process, skin dryness pretty much comes with the territory. When choosing a moisturizer to soothe inflamed skin, Dr. Friedman says there are three key ingredients to look for:
- Emollient (e.g. glycol/glyceryl stearate, soy sterols) to lubricate and soften skin
- Occlusive (e.g. petrolatum, dimethicone, mineral oil) to ‘seal’ and prevent evaporation of water. Silicone derivatives like dimethicone or cyclomethicone are recommended.
- Humectant (e.g. glycerol, lactic acid, urea, hyaluronic acid) to attract and hold water
At different stages of the radiation process, skin needs different levels of moisture, according to breastcancer.org. In the first stages of treatment, when skin is normal or perhaps slightly pink, moisturizing with fragrance-free formulas like Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafine, or Radiacare following treatment can help soothe irritation.
Happy 2nd Birthday’s Oil-Free Daily Moisturizer is also a safe radiation skincare product with added benefits from the soothing properties of jojoba and smoothing properties of apple extract.
As the radiation process continues, skin may begin to itch and burn. Aloe vera or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help. And as skin becomes more irritated as part of the radiation process and over-the-counter solutions are no longer effective, consult your doctor about stronger radiation skincare products like prescription steroid creams, which can reduce symptoms.
Best sunblocks for protecting skin post-radiation therapy
One incredibly important part of keeping skin safe and healthy before, during, and after radiation therapy is keeping skin safe from the sun. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, anyone who has had radiation treatments has a higher risk of developing skin cancer in that area. Because skin cancer can show up any time—even years later—this makes sun protection essential for life. Of course, the best way to keep skin safe from sun damage is to avoid the sun entirely, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and also by covering up with hats, sunglasses, long sleeves, and pants. However, simply staying indoors covered from head to toe is not exactly a long-term solution.
Most experts recommended covering unhealed scars, sores, or rashes completely to avoid sun damage. But for those whose symptoms are mild, choosing a fragrance-free sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher, letting it dry for 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapplying every half hour or so can mean enjoying worry-free fun in the sun. But because skin is ultra-sensitive during radiation, doctors may have more specific sunscreen recommendations, so as with any other product, it’s important to ask, bring the product you’re considering using, and make a plan.
Radiation therapy is certainly no spa day (in fact, patients often can’t even have those until treatment ends, because there’s no end to the ways in which radiation is unfair). But while a day at a literal spa may not be in the cards, a skincare plan approved by a doctor full of soothing, moisture-rich radiation skincare products can help give patients a little peace of mind during an incredibly stressful time.