Skin Side-Effects of Radiation Therapy for Cancer Treatments: What To Know
Typically, you will begin to notice skin side effects of radiation therapy treatments within 2-3 weeks of the start of your treatments. Skin will begin to look sunburned, and you may notice redness and the skin may become uncomfortable, dry, sore or itchy.
Below are a few things to keep in mind as you undergo radiation therapy and wish to preserve a good quality of life and maintain the appearance of your healthy skin:
Side effects of radiotherapy: Dos and Don’ts
- Be sure to consult with your radiation oncologists and nurse to obtain the latest research and knowledge on the effective care of skin undergoing radiation therapy. Moisturizing the skin can be helpful to reduce itching and discomfort. Talk with your radiation team about which moisturizers are recommended and effective to use.
- Keep your skin clean and dry and pat gently to dry with soft towels; don’t rub the skin.
- Wash skin in the treatment area with lukewarm (not hot) water and a mild or baby soap. Avoid rubbing the skin with washcloths.
- Do not use make up or cosmetics in the treatment area.
- Do not use skin products that contain fragrance or harsh alcohol (isopropyl).
- Radiation often causes the hair in the field of treatment to fall out. This is often temporary, though for some it may become permanent.
- If your treatment is to your head, use a mild shampoo, such as baby shampoo. Do not shampoo daily or use hot curlers or a curling/flat iron. Be gentle when combing or brushing hair.
- Wear loose fitting, soft clothing over the treatment area.
- Do not use powder in the treated region.
- Avoid using heating pads and hot water bottles.
- Limit exposure to sun. Practice sun safety as exposure the sun can cause more skin damage. Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every day. Wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, pants and a hat when outdoors.
- Do not smoke.
- Avoid swimming in chlorinated pools and hot tubs.
- Use gentle clothing detergents without fragrance or dyes and avoid clothing starch.
- Don’t itch your skin, apply recommended moisturizers instead to maintain comfort.
There are many calendula creams on the market today that are recommended by radiation oncology clinicians for the care of the skin and protection against skin side effects of radiation that may interfere with quality of life. One in particular, My Girls™ Skin Care, formulated especially for breast cancer patients by a breast cancer survivor who underwent treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is made without fragrance, dyes, parabens or harsh alcohols. It is an effective topical cream that is clinically proven and a lower cost option for the care of the skin and protection against radiation-induced dermatitis. Unique characteristic include:
- Contains 10% calendula, more than homeopathic calendula creams.
- Absorbs quickly and is non-greasy and non-staining.
- Large 6.8 Oz tub and 5 Oz tube lasts through treatment and beyond and may also be used to calm sunburns and reduce redness associated with skin conditions including: rosacea, ezcema, psoriasis and mild acne.
In the case of radiation therapy, topical creams should only be applied after each treatment and up to 4 hours prior to a treatment to diminish redness and discomfort. Your radiation oncology team will meet with you frequently for skin checks to ensure you are on track with your treatment plan. If you have any questions about protecting your skin during treatments for cancer, skin side effects of treatment, recommended creams and lotions to use on your skin and recommended applications, you should always consult with your medical team first and continue to seek their medical advice if you should have any issues.
- Calendula Officinalis for Radiodermatitis, Oncology Nursing Society
- Baines, C. R., McGuiness, W., & O'rourke, G. A. (2017). An integrative review of skin assessment tools used to evaluate skin injury related to external beam radiation therapy. Journal of clinical nursing, 26(7-8), 1137-1144.
- Yuen, F., & Arron, S. (2016). Skin Care Products Used During Radiation Therapy. In Skin Care in Radiation Oncology (pp. 31-45). Springer International Publishing.