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How to Take Care of Your Skin When You Need Radiation Treatments

If you have cancer, your doctor may recommend radiation treatments to help stop it, slow its growth, keep it from returning or alleviate your symptoms. And your top concern is almost certainly getting your cancer under control. But while radiation is an effective treatment for cancer, it can be tough on your skin. 

The part of your body that receives radiation treatment can look sunburned, be itchy or dry, peel and even develop sores. “The skin is very sensitive during radiation treatment and becomes easily irritated,” said Jordan Abbott, MD, a dermatologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “The bathing routine and skin care products that never caused you any trouble before may exacerbate your sensitive skin during radiation therapy.”

Dr. Abbott shared some tips for the best ways to care for your skin during and after radiation treatment, so you feel more comfortable and recover more quickly.

Tips for bathing

Clean your skin daily in the shower with lukewarm water—hot water can be irritating. Use a gentle, fragrance-free, hypoallergenic cleanser rather than harsh soaps or products. Your care team may recommend skin-care products to try. 

“Applying the cleanser with your hands is gentler on the skin than using a washcloth, loofah or sponge,” she said. Don’t try to wash off the lines on your skin that guided the radiation treatment. After you’re done showering, pat your skin dry, since rubbing it can be irritating.

Tips for shaving

“Shaving can irritate the already sensitive skin within the radiation field, so I recommend that you avoid shaving areas that are undergoing radiation treatment,” Dr. Abbott said. If you need to shave, use an electric razor with a blade that doesn’t come in direct contact with the skin. Avoid aftershave products, which can dry and irritate your sensitive skin.

Tips for moisturizing

Moisturizing your skin can help it to heal more quickly during treatment. “I often tell people that you want to choose a moisturizer that is so thick it needs to be squeezed out of a tube or scooped out of a jar. If it comes in a pump bottle, it may not be rich enough to moisturize the skin,” Dr. Abbott said. She recommends avoiding lotions since they can be too light and looking for a non-fragranced cream or ointment. As with cleansers, your care team may recommend a moisturizer.

Tips for antiperspirant

Antiperspirants and some powders can affect the strength of the radiation, so talk to your care team about using these products. You might be able to switch from an antiperspirant to a deodorant.

Tips for clothing

You’ll probably be most comfortable wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing in the areas receiving radiation. “Clothing that causes friction with the skin, such as the underwire of a bra or waistband of pants, can be especially irritating,” Dr. Abbott said. She recommends wearing a different style and fit of these garments each day to avoid repetitive friction. 

Tips for sun protection

It’s always important to protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays with clothing or sunscreen, and that’s especially true when you’re undergoing radiation therapy. “Sometimes, when the skin is extremely sensitive, sun-protective clothing is more comfortable than sunscreen,” Dr. Abbott said. A wide-brimmed hat offers great protection for your head and neck. 

Radiation therapy increases your risk for skin cancer, so you’ll want to be careful to protect your skin from sun exposure going forward, even after you’re finished with your treatments.

Tips for wound care

Despite your best efforts, your radiation treatments could lead to wounds. “It is important to ask your care team how to treat any open wounds,” Dr. Abbott said. But as a rule of thumb, you’ll want to avoid tape or adhesive, such as Band-Aids, in areas where you’re receiving radiation treatment. 

Skip the hot and cold treatments

If your skin is uncomfortable, you might think heating pads or ice packs would offer relief. But that’s not the case for skin that is affected by radiation. “Extreme temperatures can actually irritate the skin more and cause more discomfort,” Dr. Abbott said.

When should you see a dermatologist?

Using the right skin care products can decrease the irritation your skin gets from radiation treatment. But if you develop a rash, blistering or open wounds in the area where you’re receiving treatment, you should see a dermatologist. 

It’s also important to watch your skin for changes that could develop as a complication after you’ve completed radiation. If anything seems unusual or you have questions about what is happening with your skin, contact your dermatologist. 

The bottom line

Radiation is a crucial treatment for many types of cancer, but it can be tough on your skin. Choosing gentle skin-care products and treating your skin with care can make you feel more comfortable and help your skin heal more quickly. If you would like to connect with a dermatologist who can give you more tips for caring for your skin during and after radiation treatment, reach out to Banner Health.

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