How to Navigate Skin Care During Cancer Treatment
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How to Navigate Skin Care During Cancer Treatment

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In January 2019, there were an estimated 16.9 million cancer survivors in the United States. By 2030, the number of survivors is projected to increase to 22.2 million. If you or someone you love is dealing with this surmountable disease, your focus is probably on treatment and recovery. However, you may be unaware of some of the lesser-known yet very irritating side effects of cancer treatments on the skin, the largest organ of the body. During treatment, skin can become dry, irritated, sensitive to cold, and sensitive to certain fabrics and ingredients. Searching the internet for suggestions on how to care for skin and product ingredients that are harmful or helpful to our skin during treatment yields confusing results. It’s difficult and time-consuming to decipher, so I consulted a few experts to weigh in and provide their best suggestions. 

How does cancer treatment impact the skin?    

Dr. Carl Thornfeldt, a clinical dermatologist and creator of Epionce, a medical skin-care line, explains that undergoing cancer treatment puts a lot of stress on the skin and damages the skin barrier, which can lead to thinning of the skin, redness, dryness, scaling, hyperpigmentation, and skin ulcers. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman, “Many who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation experience some sort of dermatologic issue, so the skin must be treated with delicacy.” 

Dr. Angela Lamb, lead dermatologist and advisor to Veracity, explains that during cancer treatment, the skin may be more susceptible to free radicals, have a different texture, or feel thicker. “Many of my patients notice that their skin is dryer post-chemotherapy treatment, and if they had radiation in the area, the skin can feel thicker and appear darker,” she says. “There are also some very specific rashes or expected reactions that can occur in response to certain chemotherapy agents. These can be managed, but they can be upsetting.”

How should someone undergoing cancer treatment adjust their skin-care routine?

Avoiding any ingredients or formulations that may cause further damage or dryness is key, emphasizes Thornfeldt, a pioneer in skin barrier research who was awarded the first patent on skin barrier health in 1997. He recommends using gentle products with hydrating ingredients that will nourish the skin. In the same spirit, Engelman suggests a daily face routine starting with a mild, fragrance-free cleanser without dyes or parabens. She explains that foaming cleansers can be a less abrasive option. “Gently wash with lukewarm water to open the pores for an optimal cleanse,” she says, adding that hot water can strip the skin of its natural oils or cause irritation and inflammation. Then, follow with a mild, alcohol-free toner. As for exfoliation? Skip it, and focus on moisturizing. “Moisturize your face at least twice daily with lightweight formulations that are hypoallergenic and recommended for sensitivity and dryness as chemotherapy often catalyzes these issues,” advises Engelman. “Applying the more aggressive actives, including benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, are typically going to be on a case-by-case basis depending on factors such as treatment, photosensitivity, etc. Consult a medical expert to see if it is right for you.”

For the body, Engelman advises washing with soaps formulated for dry skin that don’t contain irritating, harmful ingredients. Moisturize at least twice a day and be sure to apply it to your hands after each hand wash to prevent irritation and dryness. “Using a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free lotion, body butter, mineral oil, or baby oil will help restore dry, cracked, or itchy skin. For optimal absorption, try to apply right after you bathe or shower to seal water into the skin’s moisture barrier before it evaporates,” she explains. And…don’t forget sunscreen. “Mineral broad-spectrum sunscreens containing zinc oxide are a must for sun protection,” declares Engelman. “Chemo drugs can create photosensitivity or allergies, making SPF a daily essential—even during the winter!” You may also consider clothing containing a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). I personally love brands like Coolibar and Athleta for their easy-to-wear, versatile pieces. A UPF wrap can quickly add sun protection for exposed delicate skin.

What skin-care ingredients are best to avoid and embrace during cancer treatment? 

“I strongly advise avoiding sulfates and parabens, common allergens such as fragrance and dyes, high alcohol content, preservatives, or any other harsh ingredients that remove skin lipids and lead to irritation,” says Thornfeldt. Engelman adds that during cancer treatment, avoiding alcohol-based products such as perfumes, colognes, and aftershaves is also a good idea. Additionally, Allie Egan, CEO and founder of Veracity, underlines the importance of steering clear of hormone disruptors, such as fragrances, talc, or PEG. “Even some natural ingredients, like papaya, lavender, soy, and gluten, can be irritating and mimic/disrupt hormones,” she says. “On average, we’re exposed to 85,000 harmful chemicals in our day-to-day lives, so let’s take steps to minimize exposure whenever we can.”

According to Engelman, hyaluronic acid is at the top of the list of ingredients to prioritize. “It’s a non-irritating hydrator that holds up to 1,000 times its own weight in water and works as a superior ingredient to lock moisture into the skin barrier.” She also notes aloe vera, which has anti-inflammatory properties that work to reduce redness and increase collagen production, and shea butter, a highly nourishing ingredient known for its ability to condition and soothe dry skin, as other ingredients to incorporate. Egan adds that ingredients like ceramides and adaptogens are great for sensitive skin, supporting the skin barrier and helping your skin adapt to stress. She also stresses that diet and other lifestyle changes can greatly support your immune system and nurture your total health. 

One groundbreaking ingredient gaining traction for speeding up the recovery time from radiation treatment burns and scarring from surgery is growth factors, which are regulatory proteins made by the body to stimulate stem cell growth and promote healing. Madhavi Gavini is the founder and CEO of Droplette, an innovative skin-care delivery system that is currently the only non-invasive delivery system for growth factors. “Compelling evidence indicates that they can accelerate the healing process, particularly in damaged, burned, and inflamed skin, which makes them a promising ingredient for treating skin that has been damaged by cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy,” says Gavini.

During cancer treatment, another consideration is that some can experience changes in hair texture or density and can lose hair on their head as well as lashes and eyebrows. Additionally, certain fabrics can be irritating to the skin and damage fragile hair during treatment, so pampering yourself with silk products can help ease some of the discomfort and fallout.

How long will the skin-care side effects of cancer treatment last?

You may wonder if you are going to be stuck with these skin sapping side-effects long after treatment. Dr. Lamb explains that, especially in areas where you’ve had higher doses of radiation, there can be some permanent changes, and some may even be delayed by months or years; however, the changes that occur while you are on active chemotherapy are generally not long-lasting. The good news is adopting a gentle skin-care routine with an awareness of helpful and harmful ingredients will have long-lasting benefits for your skin and your overall health. But always remember: If you are dealing with any major skin concerns during cancer treatment, you should always seek out a dermatologist for professional, individualized care.

Glo Skin Beauty Phyto-Calm Aloe Drops

Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Miracle Hydrating Mis

Lanolips 101 Ointment Multi-Balm

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

Humphreys Nourishing Cleansing Pads

Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart SPF 50

Droplette Microinfusion Device

Droplette Prescriptive Regimen: Ultra Hydrate

Epionce Medical Barrier Cream

Epionce Milky Lotion Cleanser

Veracity BioEvolve Serum and Moisturizer

Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Fragrance-Free Prebiotic Oat Face Cream

Pause Cooling Mist

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Moisturizing Cream