Managing Treatments

Tips for When Cancer and Dry Skin Meet

When cancer and dry skin meet, moisturize often with a thick, nonirritating skin creme. Look for products without alcohol and drink lots of water during the day.

When you think about possible side effects of cancer treatment, fatigue, nausea and hair loss come to mind. But other side effects crop up, too, including dry skin. That’s because many cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can cause dry skin by slowing down your skin’s ability to renew itself, and your body may not have enough water and oil to hydrate your skin properly, according to the American Cancer Society.

Unfortunately, the combination of cancer and dry skin can add up to extra discomfort during a time when you can use all the relief you can get. If you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis, here are a few tips to keep itchiness at bay.

Know Your Skin Care Products

In general, lotions are water-based, while creams are oil-based. That’s why creams are more effective at helping your skin retain moisture. You want to use a good, nonirritating skin cream at least twice per day. Additionally, when shopping, choose creams, soaps and detergents that don’t have added fragrances. Avoid skin care products that contain alcohol, including toners and colognes. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ethyl alcohol can be drying. The agency says that products labeled “alcohol-free” don’t contain ethyl alcohol, so be on the look out for those.

As well, Breastcancer.org recommends not washing your face more than twice a day and looking for facial products without soap. Your cancer treatment may leave your lips chapped and peeling too. Look for lip balms made with natural beeswax and minimal coloring and fragrance. As with skin creams, you get the best results with regular use, so don’t wait until you need relief to apply them.

Limit Your Time in Water

When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, you might feel like all you want to do is take a luxuriously hot bath, but that’s not the best bet for keeping your skin healthy. Use cool or warm (not hot) water, and limit yourself to short baths or showers. Consider putting mineral oil in your bath water, or apply it while your skin is still damp from bathing. That can make it harder to keep your footing while barefoot, so be extra careful not to slip while you dress. When you dry off, gently pat your skin dry.

You do, however, want to consume lots of water. Dehydration is a common cause of dry skin, reports the American Cancer Society, so drink lots of water and uncaffeinated teas (they recommend 2 to 3 quarts a day, which is about four to six standard water bottles). Caffeine can flush fluids out of your body, so consider limiting caffeinated teas, soft drinks and coffee when going through treatment.

Talk to Your Healthcare Team

You may feel like cancer and dry skin go hand in hand, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Keep your oncology team up-to-date with any discomforts you experience, including dry or itchy skin. They will be able to recommend the right treatments for your situation and possibly adjust your treatment if it becomes unbearable or seems more like an infection than dry skin.

Talk to your oncologist about potentially visiting a dermatologist with experience in caring for cancer patients. These steps should let you focus on completing your treatment and getting better.

Dry skin is a common side effect of cancer treatment, but you don't have to suffer in silence. Your UVA Cancer Center team can help.

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Darcy Lewis
Darcy Lewis