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Taking Care of Your Skin During Chemo

Updated: Dec 15, 2022


Doctor's hands on table facing cancer patient

I'll be honest, I didn't realise how superficial I could be until I had to go through chemotherapy and lost my hair, bloated from the steroids, and saw how the drugs ruined my skin. In the past, I've gotten lucky with good genes and didn't have to put much effort into taking care of my hair or skin. Oh how things have changed!


After spending 6 months looking like the lovechild of Matt Lucas and Friar Tuck I now know ALL there is to know about taking care of my skin during treatment. It was a learning curve and I hope I can help you avoid trawling through site after site looking for products that will help. As always, check with your medical team before using any new products, the chemo ward nurses were my best friends for this!


As cancer patients we have a lot on our minds, and skin care might be the last thing you expected to have to think about. However, the very drugs that kill cancer cells also affect the growth of healthy skin cells. Most people know about chemo's hair-loss side effect, but treatment can also cause dull, gray skin that is dry, sensitive and irritated. This was a little bonus bit of shit I wasn't expecting.


You probably understand now that cancer cells divide and proliferate at a faster rate than normal cells in the body. Chemotherapy medicines aim to limit cancerous cell growth and multiplication by targeting malignant cells, unfortunately healthy cells get caught in the crossfire and this includes your skin & hair cells.


This damage to healthy cells is what causes the side effects of chemo, like dry and fragile skin, yellowing or grey complexion, brittle nails and hair loss. All the fun things!


Not only are there cosmetic concerns with chemo, but your risk for infection increases as well. This is because chemo weakens both your skin and immune system. Your skin is vital in protecting you from bacteria and other risks; however, when it's weakened, even everyday tasks could lead to an infection. Simple ways to avoid infection are to cut your nails short to avoid them snagging on anything, always wear shoes when out of the house (no more heading to Woolies barefoot those of you in QLD & NT), and treat any scrapes or scratches quickly & cover.


If you were used to perfectly manicured nails before chemo you may be frustrated to learn that your chemo cocktail can lead to brittle, discoloured nails that break or peel easily, and in severe cases even total loss. As some drugs can cause light sensitivity (especially those in the taxane group) some women choose to paint their nails a very dark colour to block out the light and give them the best chance of avoiding sun damage to the nail bed. If you decide to go this way, speak to your oncology team as some nurses prefer you to have clear nails so they can spot any potential problems quickly.



What are your options?


All of this means that you have to be very careful with how you care for skin, hair and nails during chemo. I was never a cosmetics or make-up girl, I used basic moisturisers on my skin and my make-up routine was mascara if I could be bothered.

Taking care of my skin and trying to look like myself was one of the most challenging parts of my treatment. I spent hundreds of dollars and hours researching products that would help with the dryness, dull complexion and hair loss. Some of the products I found helpful are below with links to purchase*.


The best thing to do is simplify your skin care routine and use simple, hydrating products for sensitive skin. All of the standards that apply to sensitive skin also apply to those undergoing chemotherapy. Think of your skin like a newborn baby's. You wouldn't leave a newborn out in the sun or smother it in retinol cream so cover up and step away from the retinol creams!


To avoid skin irritation, choose products that are gentle, hydrating, and hypoallergenic. Additionally, stay away from common allergens like alcohol, preservatives, fragrance and even botanical essential oils. These can be irritating or cause an allergic reaction.

My favourite moisturisers I tried during treatment were:


A entry level facial oil with the goodness of rosehip to help your skin get it's glow back.


This is one of my all time favourite products for getting as much moisture into my chemo ravaged skin as possible.

A light and fresh moisturising balm which is suitable for sensitive skin with no added parabens or fragrance.


When it comes to protecting your skin during this time, skip the scrubs, AHAs, and anything containing glycolic acid. Exfoliating products are designed to remove dead skin build-up, but remember this process is not happening during your treatment so it is an unnecessary stress on your skin. These products can also increase sensitivity to UV damage - chemo has already got that covered so no need to add to it!


By avoiding harsh ingredients that can further irritate and damage the skin, you give your skin the best chance of looking healthy.


For my nails I personally used a nail hardener to help give them a fighting chance against the chemo drugs. I cut them short and kept any breaks under control. During the 6 months of chemo they pretty much stopped growing but this process seemed to work well for me. I had some ridging appear but no further damage.


Just remember to avoid using remover as the acetone is harsh and we don't want to add any additional stress to our poor nails.


I used these products to keep my nails as strong as possible:


Acetone Free Nail Polish Remover is essential if you are going to use nail polish to protect your nails.


I didn't have any splits or breaks during my chemo. I don't know whether I got lucky but I gave myself the best chance by using this nail hardener.


Great quality nail polish in a dark colour.


UV radiation from the sun is no joke in Australia, and you don't want to add skin cancer to your battle. Sun protection is a must!


A lot of chemo drugs can cause sun allergy, (I learnt this the hard way so you don't have to) so slather on some sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher every day.

As you currently have extremely sensitive skin, consider accessorising with a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeve clothing, and maybe even sun protective gloves. A fashionable way to cover your hands and neck when you are at risk of prolonged sun exposure is to wear an oversized linen or cotton button-down shirt.


I used these sun protection products during treatment.


Cancer Council Daywear SPF 50+ Light Tint BB Cream This is a lovely light day cream with a slight tint. I would wear this every day once I learnt my lesson and didn't have another problem with sun damage.


I haven't come across La Roche Posay before chemo but now I love their products. They are lightweight and perfect for sensitive chemo skin. This is a great day to day sunscreen.


Support Organisations


Look Good, Feel Better run workshops for patients undergoing cancer treatments.

The workshops are designed to help with managing the appearance-related side-effects of cancer treatment. They are open to all Australians undergoing any type of treatment for any type of cancer.

You can register for a workshop here.


Cancer Council Australia offers a Wig Service. The wig services offer an extensive range of wigs, turbans, beanies and scarves in a range of styles and colours. These products are lent to people for as long as required while undergoing cancer treatment. You can contact your state run service here.


If you find yourself needing to talk to someone after reading this article you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or The Cancer Council on 13 11 20

 

Top Skin Choices


These are the products I absolutely loved during my cancer treatment.



Clinique Even Better Clinical Radical Dark Spot Corrector.

I messed up my skin (which you aren't going to do as you will ALWAYS wear sunscreen) and this cleared up the sunspots within a couple of weeks. I highly recommend for reducing blemishes & correcting skin tone and will continue to use it now I'm post chemo.


Click to purchase



Eau Thermale Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream


Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream helps repair damaged, dry, cracked, and non-oozing skin in 48 hours. Skin is immediately soothed after the first application, and the cutaneous barrier is restored

Click to purchase



Cancer Council Daywear SPF 50+ Light Tint BB Cream

As above you are going to wear sunscreen every single day from now on and this is a great option. I apply this after my moisturiser and know I'm heading out with 50+ protection on my delicate facial skin. If I'd been doing this from the start I wouldn't have needed the Clinique!


Click to purchase

Support Resources

Cancer Council Australia

CCA an organisation to support all Australians affected by cancer through support, research and prevention programs.


Ovarian Cancer Australia

OCA is an independent national not-for-profit organisation, supporting women diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Our focus is to provide care and support for those affected by ovarian cancer; and represent them by leading change. Our vision is to save lives and ensure no woman with ovarian cancer walks alone.


Breast Cancer Network Australia

BCNA Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) is Australia’s leading breast cancer consumer organisation. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that all Australians who are affected by breast cancer receive the very best care, treatment and support.


Bowel Cancer Australia

BCA Peer-to-Peer Support Network connects patient’s and loved ones on a one-to-one buddy basis that enables members to give and receive advice about their bowel cancer experience in an informal and mutually beneficial way.


Leukaemia Foundation

LF is a support service for patients and supporters dealing with blood cancers.


*FU Cancer is supported by its audience. If you choose to purchase through the links on our site we may receive an affiliate commission. This goes towards paying our expenses plus a percentage of our monthly profit goes towards directly helping people with cancer. If you know someone who could do with a boost during their cancer treatment please let us know here.



*FU Cancer is supported by its audience. If you choose to purchase through the links on our site we may receive an affiliate commission. This goes towards paying our expenses plus a percentage of our monthly profit goes towards directly helping people with cancer. If you know someone who could do with a boost during their cancer treatment please let us know here.





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