AAD: How to care for your skin during radiation therapy
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.
Without taking steps to minimize these side effects, dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology say radiation therapy can greatly impact patients’ quality of life and threaten their ability to continue treatment.
During radiation therapy, the treated skin becomes very sensitive, which can cause painful rashes and delays in care,” says board-certified dermatologist Anisha Patel, MD, FAAD. “To reduce pain or discomfort from radiation therapy and increase your ability to continue treatment, it’s important to consult a board-certified dermatologist prior to the start of any cancer therapies and avoid doing things that can further irritate the treated skin, such as spending time outdoors without sun protection or using harsh skin care products.”
To take care of your skin during radiation therapy, Dr. Patel recommends the following 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 has received radiation therapy. Use your hands to gently splash water on the treated area, and do not use a washcloth, sponge or loofah. If you need to cleanse, use a gentle, low-pH cleanser, and do not scrub at any lines drawn on your skin.
- Avoid shaving the skin that received treatment, as this could cause a painful rash or increase the risk of infection.
- Apply moisturizer every day as directed. Moisturizer can help your skin heal more quickly after treatment. Discuss moisturizer recommendations and the timing of application with your cancer care team, including your dermatologist.
- Choose “fragrance free” skin care products. Makeup and skin care products often contain fragrance, which can irritate your skin and cause a reaction. Unless a product says it is “fragrance free,” it’s likely to contain fragrance. Even products labeled “unscented” can contain fragrance, so make sure to check the ingredients before using.
- Wear loose-fitting clothes. You can develop irritation if clothing rubs against skin that has been treated with radiation. Wear loose-fitting clothes to help prevent these side effects.
Protect your skin while doing chores. If you’re getting radiation treatments on your hands or lower arms, protect your skin with gloves while doing chores, such as dishes. For added protection, wear cotton liner gloves under rubber gloves.
- Protect your treated skin from the sun. Radiation therapy can make your skin very sensitive to sunlight. When spending time outdoors, seek shade and cover your treated skin with sun-protective clothing. You can identify sun-protective clothing by looking for an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label, but any clothing that you hold up to a bright light and cannot see through offers sun protection. Make sure the clothing is loose-fitting, and protect your head and neck using a wide-brimmed hat. If you need to use sunscreen to protect the treated area, make sure it is broad-spectrum and has an SPF of 30 or higher, and reapply it every two hours.
- Avoid contact with very hot or cold temperatures. While a hot tub, heating pad or ice pack may sound comforting, exposure to extreme temperatures can further irritate your treated skin. Worse, if you enter a hot tub that hasn’t been properly cleaned, you could develop a serious infection.
- Do not apply anything sticky to your treated skin. Medical tape, stick-on bandages and nicotine patches — and other medical supplies with adhesive — can irritate and damage skin with radiation. If you need to wear a patch for medical reasons, apply it to skin that has not been treated with radiation.
After radiation therapy, pay close attention to the skin that was treated, as radiation therapy can increase your risk of developing certain types of infections, as well as skin cancer,” says Dr. Patel. “Some side effects can occur weeks, months or even years after your last radiation treatment — even if you had no side effects during treatment. If you see redness, a rash, or any other changes on your skin, call your oncologist or dermatologist.”
These tips are demonstrated in “How to Care for Your Skin During Radiation Therapy,” a video posted to the AAD website and YouTube channel. This video is part of the AAD’s “Video of the Month” series, which offers tips people can use to properly care for their skin, hair and nails.