One of the many unfortunate side effects of most cancer treatments is that your skin often becomes a lot more sensitive than it was before—which means that aside from everything else you have on your plate at the moment, if you’re about to undergo cancer treatment, you need to rethink the skincare products you’ve been using for years (really, it’s the very definition of adding insult to injury). To learn more about what skin changes people tend to experience and ingredients to avoid, we spoke with Jonathan Leventhal, M.D., the director of the Onco-Dermatology Program at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale, and Nicole LeBoeuf, M.D., M.P.H, the Director of the Program in Skin Toxicities for Anticancer Therapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“In general, if you are going to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment of any kind, you will probably notice some skin sensitivity, and dryness is very common,” Dr. LeBoeuf says. “Many cancer treatments, especially some of the targeted therapies, can also cause you to be more sensitive to the sun.”
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done about it. “Knowledge is power, and it’s important to know that your skin may experience some reactions to the treatments, but there are things that can be done to help prevent these issues, reduce their severity, and treat them,” Dr. Leventhal says, noting that you shouldn’t be shy about asking your oncologist and dermatologist about any issues before they manifest. “Ask what you can expect to happen to your skin, hair, and nails, and be an advocate for yourself. The more knowledgeable you are about what can happen to your body, the better off you’ll be.”
Steer Clear of Alcohol-Based Products
“Avoid anything with high alcohol content,” Dr. Leventhal says. “In terms of specific formulations, gels and solutions can rub in very easily, but because many of them have a high alcohol content as their base, they can be very irritating and burn the skin, or cause it to sting.” Products with alcohol in them can also dry out the skin very easily, which is the exact opposite of what your skin needs, especially when undergoing cancer treatments, which can cause your skin to become much drier and more sensitive.
Opt For Products That Are Free From Fragrances And Dyes
“In general, you should be pretty gentle with your skin,” Dr. LeBoeuf says. “Avoid fragrance and avoid dyes.” The problem with fragrances is that they are wildly unregulated and can lead to skin allergies. The term is a catch-all for a lot of chemical components that don’t have to be approved by any governmental regulatory agency. However, that’s not to say you should avoid products just because they smell good—for instance, coconut oil and sweet almond oil both smell heavenly, but unless you’re allergic to nuts, they’re perfectly fine to apply to your skin (and include in your diet). The issue is with unregulated fragrances and dyes that may be endocrine disruptors, not with all nice-smelling ingredients.
Wear Sunscreen—But Try to Opt For Physical Blockers
“If possible, avoid chemical sunscreens. Some ingredients, such as oxybenzone, are controversial,” Dr. LeBoeuf says, referring to a chemical blocker that has been shown in some studies to affect hormones. Instead, it’s better to opt for a zinc-based sunscreen. These can be annoying because they take longer to rub in, but it’s worth the extra seconds to choose the safest sunscreen out there.
Avoid The Bad Kind of Preservatives
“The best moisturizing topicals for the skin are those that don’t have irritating preservatives,” Dr. Leventhal says. One common type of preservative to avoid in your skincare routine: parabens, which have been shown to cause hormone disruption—and have even been linked to causing cancer.
Clear Antioxidants With Your MD
Anything with robust antioxidants in it—for instance, a vitamin C serum—may actually alter the effect of radiation treatments. “Nothing should be applied to an area of radiation treatment without talking to the radiation oncologist,” Dr. LeBoeuf says. This goes for all products, really—when undergoing cancer treatments, it’s a good idea to run your skincare routine past your board-certified dermatologist and oncologist.