According to research, almost half of cancer patients develop skin problems during treatment which all impact the hair, nails and skin. A well-documented side effect of many cancer treatments is severe itchy, sometimes blistering rash or inflammation and burning, sensitized skin.

Unfortunately, some cancer patients give up on treatments because the pain is so overwhelming, which means the cancer cannot be treated effectively due to the adverse side effects experienced.

During cancer treatment and therapy, the skin becomes more sensitive to skincare products and other external factors, accompanied with changes in hair and nails.

Cancer Treatments and their effect on the skin

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Although radiation therapy and chemotherapy may cause mild skin problems, it is usually more severe if undergoing immunotherapy, targeted therapy or stem cell transplants. It is important to let your healthcare provider know if you experience these side effects so you can get prompt treatment and minimize pain and discomfort.

Radiation therapy sometimes causes the part of the body receiving radiation to become dry, itchy and peel – a condition referred to as pruritus – which turns skin red or darker. You may find that your skin can become swollen, puffy and may even look and feel like sunburn.

In some cases, a moist reaction may occur – which is a development of wet, painful sores which become infected.

A common symptom experienced is radiation recall – an area which received radiation therapy in the past which becomes unusually sensitive, red, blistering and peels. Watch out for a sudden severe rash, hives or burning sensation as this may be a sign of an allergic reaction.

After chemotherapy it is not unusual to develop photosensitivity – a minor rash or increased risk of sunburn.  It is also common to experience pigmentation changes, and nails may become cracked or dark with cuticles becoming sore and painful.

Stem Cell transplants may cause graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which causes thickening of the skin accompanied by blistering and rash.

Certain immunotherapy and targeted therapies could leave a severe and extensive rash, which can cause skin to become dry or blister and further exacerbate already weak finger nails and surrounding tissue.

Ask your doctor about the changes you may experience depending on the treatment you will/have received:

  • What nail and skin changes may occur as side effect of the treatment I am receiving?
  • Which symptoms need urgent medical attention and which symptoms can be managed at home?

If you do experience intensive side effects, especially when receiving immunotherapy – it is important to call your doctor if you experience rashes which involve the eyes or mucous membranes like the mouth. Make a note of all the symptoms so you can discuss when meeting with your treatment provider.

Common skin and nail changes when receiving cancer treatment

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  • Acneiform Eruptions (acne)
  • Bed Sores
  • Blistering
  • Painful skin and burning sensation
  • Skin Dryness
  • Hand-Foot syndrome (palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia – painful, red, swelling of hand palms and foot soles, with peeling of the skin)
  • Hyperpigmentation (Darker patches of skin joints and tongue)
  • Hypopigmentation (patches of skin that are lighter than your normal skin colour)
  • Pruritus (Skin itchiness)
  • Keratoacanthoma – skin growth’s which are dome-shaped
  • Crusty, flaking and peeling skin
  • Photosensitivity (Burn easily in the sun)
  • Rash
  • Darkened or red skin
  • Painful sores which may become infected
  • Swollen skin
  • Yellowing of nails
  • Nail infection (acute paronychia)
  • Swollen and/or painful cuticles
  • Nail cracking and breaking / crumbling

Adjusting your post-cancer treatment skin care routine

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If a suitable skin care routine is followed after cancer treatment, side effects can be managed thereby relieving pain, soothing irritation and speeding up the healing process, putting you on the path to recovery.  If your symptoms are not being relieved by your at home skin routine, your doctor may prescribe oral corticosteroids or antibiotics to help with treatment.

Preventing and managing mild skin and nail changes during or after treatment

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Although we are all unique in the symptoms which can be experienced and the reaction we may get from certain products, it is advised to stay away from potential sensitisers as far as possible. Your doctor can recommend a product range specifically for post-cancer skin care, and if severe can refer you to a dermatologist.

If for example you receive radiotherapy, the skin is prone to become red and irritated causing a ‘sunburnt’ effect, which is further aggravated by certain ingredients like preservatives and perfumes in cosmetics.

Avoid natural or organic products. Due to the skin being sensitized it is common that one may develop an allergy towards even natural products which might contain essential oils. It is recommended to use skin products which have been developed specifically for ‘post-procedure’ skincare which won’t trigger allergies or irritation.

Products like toners and facial treatments, perfumes and after-shave may contain alcohol and can be harsh on the skin, and so can serums like vitamin C, scrubs and other beta-hydroxy containing products.

What should I use?

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Mildness is key. Opt for products that are fragrance-free and take short, warm (not hot) baths and showers. Swop soaps and washes for soap substitutes like oil enriched washes, developed specifically for skins which are under strain.

It is important to stay hydrated, so drink plenty of water and rest.

When in doubt, always check with your oncologist to ensure that no products are contraindicated and may cause harm in combination with your therapy.

Tips to help protect and relieve chemotherapy skin-related side effects:

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Your doctor may also recommend avoiding certain brands of antiperpirant or deodrant.

Stay away from perfume, after-shave, and other alcohol-based products. Your doctor may also recommend avoiding certain brands of antiperspirant or deodorant.  After you have bathed or showered, gently pat yourself dry with a clean, soft towel and apply unscented moisturizing lotion or specially developed body-oil to nourish while your skin is still damp.

Wear soft, breathable fabrics, such as cotton. Avoid wearing tight or rough fabric, such as denim, that can irritate and scratch the skin.

If your skin is sore or irritated, consider shaving less often or not at all – or use an electric razor which is gentler.

Stay out of the sun and always put on sunscreen as your skin will be more susceptible to sunburn and permanent damage.

Treat and prevent nail problems by keeping your nails short and clean to avoid accidental nail tearing. If you are washing dishes or cleaning the house wear gloves for skin protection against dryness and avoid going for manicures or pedicures as harmful bacteria can easily enter already-open or damaged skin further aggravating your side-effects.

Unless your doctor advises differently, drink plenty of water and fluids to stay hydrated.


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It is common to experience painful skin-related side effects as a result of cancer treatment. Remember to talk to your doctor at any time you are in doubt or experience side-effects. Your healthcare provider can prescribe and recommend a range of soothing treatments to make your recovery process more comfortable and bearable.


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