Combating Dry, Itchy Skin and Rashes During Cancer Treatments

This page was originally published January 26, 2018 and updated September 25, 2023.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it seems like every aspect of your life undergoes some sort of a transformation. Daily routines, including what to eat, what to wear, and how to best care for your daily needs, undergo a level of scrutiny unknown to most other people.

Common Side Effects of Treatment

One change commonly experienced during and after treatment is changes to the skin. These changes typically include dry and itchy skin and rashes.

According to a multi-national expert panel in dermatology and oncology, attending to these side effects can go a long way towards improving your quality of life both during and after treatment. “The pain and morbidity associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be difficult for patients to bear because skin changes…are particularly visible. The use of cosmetics may therefore significantly improve self-image and decrease anxiety.” Clearly, the issue goes much deeper than the superficial.

Rashes are one of the most common symptoms of cancer treatment; they affect up to 85% of patients undergoing therapy.

Getting Relief

To prevent these skin rashes, this expert panel recommends PH-neutral, mild soaps for sensitive skin. Moisturizing is also recommended for patients with intact skin not at risk for infection. In addition, the experts advise using clinically tested skin moisturizers that do not contain alcohol as they offer many benefits to those in treatment. “Skin care with clinically tested moisturizers improves barrier function and skin hydration to manage cutaneous reactions prior to, during, and after oncology therapy.”

Also, it’s important to know that rashes can get worse when exposed to sunlight (and in turn can even cause pigmentation changes), so experts recommended that you use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher before venturing outdoors. Also, acne products should be off limits, including formulations containing benzoyl peroxide or retinoids. Not only are they ineffective in treating rash, but they also further dry the skin, causing irritation and potential risk for infection from itching, according to the panel.

Experts agree, addressing these side effects are an important part of cancer treatment. Choose products designed for sensitive skin and avoid untested cleansers that may contain irritating ingredients as these can further dry out and damage skin. Use sunscreen, and, if indicated, a proper moisturizers to maintaining the skin’s role as a barrier to infection. Sunscreen not only protects from damaging UV light, it also decreases the chances that your skin will see pigmentation changes.

Work with Your Medical Team

If you are experiencing changes to your skin because of cancer treatment, it is always a good idea speak with your care team right away. Members of your medical team can recommend products to help alleviate the rashes, dryness and itching. The National Cancer Institute also has some helpful tips on alleviating these side-effects. Visit their website link for more.

Free Financial help for Cancer Patients

If you are in treatment and having trouble affording care or prescriptions, please see our links to free financial resources for cancer patients for agencies that may be able to help you.

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