A Soothing Skincare Routine Before and After Chemo

Written by Heather Cruickshank - Medically reviewed by Christina Chun, MPH on March 31, 2019



Chemotherapy is a common treatment for cancer. It has many potential benefits when it comes to effectively treating cancer, but it also tends to cause side effects.

Among other possible side effects, chemo may cause changes to the texture, color, or health of your skin.

You can take steps to manage the skin-related side effects of chemo, including steps that minimize discomfort.

Read on to learn more about how chemo could possibly affect your skin, as well the strategies you can use to feel and look your best during treatment.

How can you protect and soothe your skin during chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy might affect your skin in several ways.

For example, during chemotherapy, your skin can become dry, rough, itchy, and red. It’s also possible you might experience peeling, cracks, sores, or rashes. Chemo may make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, increasing the risk of sunburn.

To help protect and relieve skin-related side effects from chemotherapy:

  • Ask your doctor or nurse if there are certain types of skin products that you should use. In general, it’s best to choose mild unscented products, such as dry skin soaps by brands like Aveeno, Basis, Dove, or Neutrogena.
  • Avoid perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, and other alcohol-based products. Your doctor or nurse might also advise you to avoid certain types of antiperspirants or deodorants.
  • Take short showers or baths in cool or lukewarm water, rather than hot water. When you finish, gently pat your skin dry with a soft clean towel.
  • After you finish your shower or bath, apply an unscented moisturizing lotion, mineral oil, or baby oil to your skin while it’s still damp.
  • If your skin is sore or irritated, consider shaving less often or not at all. If you do shave, use an electric razor, which is usually a gentler option.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing because it’s less likely to rub against your skin and cause irritation. Wash clothes in a mild, dye-free and fragrance-free detergent, such as Tide Free and Gentle or All Free Clear.
  • Protect your skin from sunlight by wearing sunscreen and lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, a wide-brimmed hat, and long-sleeved clothes. Try to limit the time you spend outside during peak sunlight hours and avoid tanning beds.
  • Unless your doctor or nurse has advised you to limit your fluid intake, drink 2 to 3 quarts of water or other fluids every day.

In some cases, your doctor or nurse might prescribe medications to treat skin symptoms. For example, they might prescribe medicated creams or ointments, oral corticosteroids or antibiotics, or other treatments.

If you develop open sores on your skin, carefully clean them with mild soap and water. Cover them with a clean bandage. Check them regularly for signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, drainage, or pus.

If you suspect that you’ve developed an infection or you’re experiencing an allergic reaction, contact your doctor or nurse right away. In some cases, infections and allergic reactions can be serious and even life-threatening.

How can you look and feel like yourself?

Skin-related side effects of chemo tend to be temporary. However, they can be a source of anxiety. If you don’t look or feel like yourself, that might make your overall treatment more stressful.

In some cases, applying makeup might help you feel more confident or comfortable about your appearance during chemo. For example, it might help to:

  • Apply a silicone-based makeup primer to your face to even out the texture or tone of your skin.
  • Dab a creamy concealer on red or dark areas of your face. It might also help to apply a color-correcting cream, mineral makeup powder, or foundation.
  • Apply blush to your cheeks, blending upward toward your ear lobes to give your face a glow.
  • Use a tinted lip balm or moisturizing lipstick to give your lips more color.

If you’ve lost your eyelashes or eyebrows, you can also use a soft eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, and brow powder to create the effect of eyelashes and eyebrows.

If your skin texture, tone, or sensitivity has changed during treatment, you might need to use different products than you usually reach for.

To limit the risk of infection, buy new makeup to use during and after treatment. Replace your makeup regularly and always wash your hands before applying it.

For more makeup and beauty-related tips, consider contacting Look Good Feel Better. This organization offers free sessions to help people with cancer manage changes to their appearance.

How does chemotherapy affect skin and what should I watch out for?

Certain skin side effects of chemotherapy are more common than others. For example, it’s very common for chemotherapy to lead to skin dryness, redness, and sun sensitivity.

Some side effects are less common, but more severe.

If you’ve undergone radiation therapy, chemotherapy can trigger a skin reaction known as radiation recall. In this reaction, a sunburn-like rash develops on areas of the body that have been treated with radiation. Symptoms include:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain or tenderness
  • blisters or wet sores
  • peeling skin

In rare cases, chemotherapy can trigger an allergic reaction. This may cause symptoms in one or more parts of your body, including your skin.

For example, potential signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction include sudden or severe itchiness, hives, or rash.

The takeaway

If you develop skin-related side effects from chemotherapy, talk to your doctor or nurse. They may prescribe medications to help treat the symptoms.

You can help protect and soothe your skin by using gentle, scent-free products, such as moisturizers, dry skin soap, and laundry detergents for sensitive skin.

Adjusting your hygiene or makeup routine may also help you feel better about how you look during treatment.

Posted in: In Treatment, Mindfulness/Wellness, Side Effects