As though undergoing cancer treatment wasn’t already difficult enough, the chances that you’ll encounter some skin irritation are extremely high. In fact, while skin issues vary from treatment to treatment (and even patient to patient), issues like rashes and blisters are among the most common side effects of cancer therapies.
However, there are some ways to keep your skin healthy during cancer treatments, which can reduce the severity of the issues you may experience. To learn more, we checked in with Nicole LeBoeuf, M.D., M.P.H, the Director of the Program in Skin Toxicities for Anticancer Therapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Jonathan Leventhal, M.D., the director of the Onco-Dermatology Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale. These specialists are extremely well-regarded in the field, and not surprisingly, had some great recommendations for us.
One of the most important: include a dermatologist on your team from the get-go. “It’s a good idea to work with a board-certified dermatologist early on because different treatment regimens have different side effects on the skin,” Dr. LeBoeuf notes. So while the following is a good general guide for those undergoing cancer treatments, the best bet is to work with a board-certified specialist directly.
1. Go soap-free
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep your skin clean—washing your hands and face is as important as it ever was. However, traditional soaps often contain harsh ingredients that strip skin of its natural moisture. Overdry skin, while not ideal for anybody, is especially problematic for those who are undergoing (or about to undergo) cancer treatments. Dr. Leventhal recommends the use of gentle, non-soap cleansers to his patients.
2. Moisturize early & often
Keeping your skin moisturized can help problems that may arise, and may even function as a “stitch in time” factor by preventing problems before they start. “If you moisturize your skin before you start chemo, it can reduce a lot of those skin changes we commonly see, like having your skin become dry, cracked, and painful,” Dr. Leventhal says. “A great moisturizing regimen is key.”
3. Opt for moisturizers that contain ceramides
“Ceramides are good moisturizing factors,” Dr. Leventhal says, referring to a well-studied lipid that helps form the skin barrier, which prevents evaporation and protects against irritants. By using moisturizers that incorporate ceramides, you can help protect against some common skin issues that can arise from cancer treatments, like dryness and irritation.
4. In this case, bland is a good thing
“You want to stay moisturized using bland moisturizers that contain as few additional ingredients as possible,” Dr. LeBoeuf says. “If you’re someone who’s used to using a whole wide variety of products, I’d generally recommend becoming a minimalist as quickly as possible and avoiding ingredients that are potentially irritating.”
5. Sun protection is absolutely key
While everyone should use sun protection daily, this is especially important for anyone undergoing cancer treatments, since these can cause your skin to become especially photosensitive.
But the short answer is: opt for a SPF 30+ sunscreen, and use it daily. “You should definitely put on a high SPF broad spectrum product, and apply more than you think you should—people so rarely apply enough!” Dr. LeBoeuf says. “Zinc-based SPF is the best, in my opinion. But no matter what kind you prefer, get into the habit of putting your sunscreen on every single morning as a part of your routine: brush your teeth, put on your sunscreen, and then start your day.”
6. Keep your moisturizer at the ready…
You need to keep your skin extra hydrated during cancer treatments, so why not make it easier for you to do so? “If you’re noticing that your skin is becoming drier, it’s a good idea to have moisturizer around all the time,” Dr. Leventhal says. One solution for this: keep some handy everywhere you go. Throw some moisturizer in your car’s glove compartment, leave it by the sink in the bathroom and kitchen, and keep one on the end table in your living room and bedroom, too. If you always have one within reach, you’ll be more likely to use it regularly than if you have to go seek it out.
7. …and your sunscreen, too
The same rule applies to your sunscreen. Keep a spare handy in your reusable shopping bag and car, and bring an easy-to-apply version with you whenever you leave the house for more than two hours at a time.
“A stick sunscreen makes reapplying easy, and keeps you from getting sunscreen all over your hands,” says Dr. LeBoeuf. “This is especially important if you’re active—for when you’re out gardening, paddleboarding, or golfing. You can put it under the sleeve of your rash guard when you’re out, then reapply throughout the day in a mess-free way.”
8. If you want to stick to your old skincare routine, make sure you get a board-certified derm’s approval
If you’re someone who has put time and energy into developing a good skincare routine, it can be hard to put all your favorite products in a box under your bed until treatment is over—and such a dramatic change may actually be unnecessary, according to Dr. LeBoeuf.
“If you want to maintain your current skincare routine, I recommend seeing a board-certified dermatologist before you start treatment,” Dr. LeBoeuf says, who notes that your dermatologist may be ok with your keeping some surprising products in the rotation. “For instance, retinol can be very irritating, but if you’re someone who has used it for a long time and your skin has reached a steady state with it, it’s possible that you may not need to drop it from your routine completely, depending on your chemo regimen.”
9. Use your skincare routine as a form of self-care
“Anything you can do to maintain your sense of self while undergoing cancer treatment is a good idea,” Dr. LeBoeuf says. “I think that making it a habit to really take care of yourself—whether that means going for a walk or taking care of your skin, and doing it in a very regimented way—can be great for you. In a time that otherwise can feel like you have no control, a routine of this nature can bring some order and peace.”