How to Manage Cancer-Related Skin Dryness and Irritation

How to Manage Cancer-Related Skin Dryness and Irritation

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Some of the most annoying and uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatments like internal and external radiation and chemotherapy involve the skin of the area being treated. During radiation, the reaction is like a sunburn, with mild to moderate redness, itching, burning, soreness, and possible peeling, while chemotherapy and immunotherapy can cause dry, itchy skin or an acne-like rash on the face. Prior to treatment, your doctor should explain what, if any, side effects you can expect as a result of treatment, and what products can help mitigate these effects. Keep reading for some more tips that can help.

Skin care

  • Don’t cut down on washing (especially handwashing), since it’s important to remove bacteria and potential viruses from your skin. But be as gentle as possible. Use a mild soap (stay away anything medicated for acne, etc.) and lukewarm (not hot) water when showering, washing your hands, or cleansing your skin in any way. Skip any kind of exfoliant, loofahs, or sponges. The same goes for fragrances, which can almost always irritate the skin. Consider switching to soaps and cleansers designed for sensitive skin, like Acure, as well as a gentle hand sanitizer for when you’re not near soap and water.
  • Avoid shaving your skin until treatments are completed, as nicks, cuts, and microtraumas can increase the risk of infection while your immune system is compromised. If you must shave, use an electric razor, which can cut hair close to the surface without further irritation.
  • After cleansing, apply a thick, rich, unscented moisturizer while your skin is still damp. This will help seal hydration into the skin. Pay special attention to areas that are particularly dry or sensitive, such as your eyes and lips. For spot-treating particularly vulnerable areas (like hands and feet) Bag Balm and Aquaphor are two standbys recommended by doctors and patients alike.
  • If you’re dealing with radiation burns, a simple trick to help with healing is as follows: When you’ve moisturized, you can create a protective barrier by applying cornstarch with a clean makeup brush or through a single knee-high nylon at the top (tap the sock on the affected area so the starch covers it). 
  • With the exception of compresses such as heating pads or ice packs that have been recommended by your doctor, avoid temperature extremes such as hot baths or showers, an unprotected face in frigid weather, etc, as this can exacerbate symptoms.
  • If you’re receiving radiation treatment to an area of the skin that comes in direct contact with clothing (such as your breasts), choose soft materials with no wires, buckles, or zippers which can irritate the skin further.
  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure. Ask your doctor about the use of sunscreen. Some will recommend using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, while others will ask you not to apply any lotions or creams to the skin. Choose a sunscreen using a mineral formula, like Pipette, which tends to be gentler and safer on the skin than chemical sunscreens. Don’t forget to wear long-sleeved UV-protective clothing and wide-brimmed UPF hats when heading outside.
  • Use only products that have been approved or prescribed by your doctor. Ask them if there are any particular products to avoid. Some therapies interact with certain ingredients, such as hydrocortisone.
  • Though the notion that antiperspirants can interfere with radiation therapy has been debunked, your doctor may still ask you to avoid wearing them during treatment, especially radiation treatment for breast cancer. That’s because any product applied to that area could further irritate the skin beyond what the radiation is already doing. Ask your doctor about natural deodorants like Ursa Major, which are formulated with ingredients that are less likely to compound redness or irritation caused by radiation.
  • Because radiation can cause temporary pigmentation changes in the skin, tanning or redness may occur during treatment. If you choose to cover this with makeup, talk to a dermatologist—or a cosmetologist who is well-versed in the unique needs of people undergoing cancer treatment. They will help find the products that are right for you. To reduce the risk of irritation, be sure all makeup is fresh (not expired) and fragrance-free.
  • Not sure how to apply your new beauty products? Check out YouTube, which offers a ton of tutorials with makeup tips especially for people with cancer. Look Good, Feel Better is also a great resource for online makeup tutorials and virtual workshops.
  • Hands and feet can be the first to crack from dryness. In addition to using heavy duty moisturizers  like Bag Balm and Aquaphor, NatraCare gel gloves and boots can be a good deep treatment. Also, wear socks as often as possible to reduce friction, and wash the dishes and do chores with rubber gloves to protect your hands from irritants.
  • Clean beauty products reduce your exposure to harsh chemicals and other irritants that can make skin problems worse. Credo Beauty is a great marketplace to get started, and you can also vet products you’re interested in for safety on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site.

Nail care

During cancer treatment, your nails may become brittle, grooved, discolored, or more sensitive. All of these are normal and temporary. To minimize these effects, experts recommend a few steps:
  • Wear waterproof gloves when your hands will be submerged in water for long periods of time (such as doing the dishes or washing laundry by hand). Excessive exposure to water can lead to fungal infections of the nail bed.
  • Keep the nails cut short. In addition to minimizing the surface area of the nails, shorter nails are less likely to lift from the nail bed.
  • If your nail does lift from the bed, talk to your doctor about what is best for your situation before trying to remove it fully at home. Removing your own nail can be painful, and can increase the risk of infection.
  • Don’t cut your cuticles, as this can increase the risk of infection while your immune system is compromised. Instead, use a cuticle remover gel. Apply a moisturizing cuticle cream to the nail beds every night to prevent dryness, splitting, and hangnails.
  • Though you should avoid artificial nails, which can trap bacteria that can cause infection, you may find it helpful to wear clear or colored nail polish to strengthen the nails and protect them from further damage. If you choose to wear polish, opt for formulas that are easy to remove using gentle, oily nail polish removers. This will keep the nails from drying out further.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at