Radiation therapy plays an important role in treating cancer. However, it can also produce some uncomfortable or even painful side effects on the skin, such as itchiness, redness, blistering, and peeling.
To take care of your skin during radiation therapy, follow these tips from board-certified dermatologists.
- Reduce side effects on your skin.
- Help your skin feel more comfortable during treatment.
- Allow your skin to recover more quickly after treatment.
Here’s how dermatologists recommend that you care for your skin before and after radiation therapy.
During radiation therapy: Be gentle and protect your skin
You want to start doing the following on the day you begin radiation therapy and continue until you’ve stopped radiation and your skin feels normal.
Bathing and shaving: Skin can become very sensitive during radiation therapy. You can reduce the risk of side effects by following these tips:
- Wash the treated skin gently every day with warm water. Washing helps remove bacteria from your skin, which can cause an infection. Be very gentle when washing your skin in the area that’s receiving radiation therapy. You can easily irritate it, which can cause side effects on your skin. To avoid irritating your skin, skip the washclothes, sponges, and loofahs. Instead, use your hands to gently splash water on the treated skin.
- Use a gentle, low-pH cleanser if you need to cleanse. Your care team may recommend skin care products that you can use. If not, ask. When using a cleanser, gently apply it with your hands and rinse it off with warm water. Again, you don’t want to use a washcloth or sponge, which can irritate your skin.
- Ignore the lines drawn on your skin. You may want to scrub these lines off, but trying to remove them will irritate your skin.
- Avoid shaving the treated skin. This can irritate your skin, which could cause a painful rash.
- Apply moisturizer every day as directed. This helps your skin recover more quickly from treatment, but don’t apply moisturizer to a wound. Be sure to use only the moisturizer that your cancer team recommends, and apply it as directed.
Getting dressed: Making the following changes until your skin feels normal can help reduce possible side effects:
- Care for wounds as directed. Some people develop redness, sores, or scabs during radiation therapy. If you need to care for a wound, be sure to follow the directions you’re given. Doing so can help your skin recover more quickly and avoid a serious reaction.
- Skip the antiperspirant and talcum powder. Ingredients in these products can increase the amount of radiation you get. You can use deodorant instead of antiperspirant. However, if you develop redness, swelling, or soreness where you applied the deodorant, stop using deodorant, too.
- Don’t apply anything sticky to your skin. This includes medical supplies with adhesive, such as medical tape, stick-on bandages, and nicotine patches. The adhesive can irritate and damage skin treated with radiation. If you need to wear a patch for medical reasons, apply it to skin that has not been treated with radiation.
- Take a break from products that contain fragrance. Makeup and skin care products often contain fragrance, which can irritate your skin and cause a reaction. Unless a product says it’s “fragrance free,” it’s likely to contain fragrance. Even unscented products contain fragrance.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes. You can develop side effects if clothing rubs against skin that been treated with radiation. Wearing loose-fitting clothing helps to prevent these side effects.
Spending time outdoors and leisure time: Being outside can help relieve stress, but you want to protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, heat, and cold. This is what dermatologists recommend:
- Cover your treated skin with sun-protective clothing. The sun can irritate skin that’s been treated with radiation. Before going outdoors, put on sun-protective clothing. You can find sun-protective clothing online, but any clothing that you hold up to a bright light and cannot see through offers sun protection. Just make sure that the clothing is loose-fitting. A wide-brimmed hat can protect your head and neck.
- Use the sunscreen that your care team recommends. Your care team will recommend skin care products that you can use, including sunscreen. If you don’t remember getting a recommendation for sunscreen, ask someone on your care team which sunscreen you should use.
- Seek shade when outdoors. This helps to protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays.
- Don’t use a tanning bed or other tanning device. These tend to emit more UV rays than the sun, so they can seriously damage your skin.
- Skip the hot tub. The heat can irritate your skin. If the hot tub hasn’t been properly cleaned, you could also develop a serious infection.
- Bundle up when the temperature nears (or falls below) freezing. The cold can irritate your skin. To prevent this, bundle up when it’s cold outdoors and limit your time outside in the cold.
Spending time at home: Until therapy is over and your skin feels normal, dermatologists recommend the following:
- Don’t put anything hot or cold on your treated skin. A heating pad or ice pack may seem like a good idea, but anything that’s hot or cold can irritate your skin.
- Protect your treated skin while doing chores. If you’re getting radiation treatments on your hands or lower arms, you’ll want to protect your skin with gloves while doing chores, such as doing dishes.
After radiation therapy: Pay attention to your treated skin
Some side effects occur weeks, months, or years after your last radiation treatment. This can happen even if you had no side effects during treatment. To catch these side effects early, dermatologists recommend the following:
- Watch your treated skin for signs of change. After treatment, it’s important to pay close attention to the skin that was treated with radiation therapy.If you see redness, a rash, or any other change, call your oncologist or dermatologist.
Rash caused by radiation therapy
The right skin care may lessen the side effects that develop on your skin.
- Protect the treated area from the sun. Anyone who has had radiation treatments has a higher risk of developing skin cancer in that area. Skin cancer tends to show up many years later, so this makes sun protection essential for life.To find out how to protect your skin, go to Prevent skin cancer.
- Make an appointment to see a board-certified dermatologist. By having a dermatologist, you have a specialist to see if you develop a skin problem later. This is especially important since you have a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
Dermatologists treat skin problems caused by cancer treatment
As the skin, hair, and nail specialist, dermatologists are often called upon to treat reactions caused by cancer treatment. They are familiar with the many reactions that can occur during and years after cancer therapy.
If you develop a skin problem after cancer treatment, you don’t have to live with the discomfort.
Image used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006; 54(1):28-46.
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Greenwald E, Gorcey L, et al. “Poster 2706: Importance of skin cancer screening after radiation therapy.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;74(5) suppl 1:AB199. Commercial support: None identified.
Hymes SR, Strom EA, et al. “Radiation dermatitis: Clinical presentation, pathophysiology, and treatment.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;54(1):28-46.
Veness M and Richards S. “Radiotherapy.” In: Bolognia JL, et al. Dermatology. (second edition). Mosby Elsevier, Spain, 2008:2127-37.