by Beth Ann Mayer
Medically Reviewed by:
Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP
by Beth Ann Mayer
Medically Reviewed by:
Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP
Skin issues are a common but sometimes overlooked side effect of chemotherapy. A dermatologist can help you safely navigate skin issues during treatment. Focus on gentle ingredients, sun protection, hydration, and rest too.
You’ve likely heard that hair loss and fatigue are common side effects of chemotherapy. However, the dry, cracked skin that often comes with chemo isn’t talked about as much.
These skin-related chemo side effects can be physically painful, but there can be emotional effects as well.
Skin issues can be more than just a “pesky side effect,” and you don’t have to deal with them alone. Read on for solutions to dry, cracking skin during chemotherapy.
Common chemo side effects affecting the skin include:
Ben Hayes, MD, PhD, a board certified dermatologist and a co-founder of the Skin & Allergy Center, says the skin is “collaterally damaged” by chemo: While chemo is meant to target cancerous cells, other parts of the body are affected as well.
“Even as chemotherapy becomes more and more targeted and specific, skin reactions will remain,” says Hayes.
The skin is the body’s largest organ. It often acts as a mirror for what’s going on inside.
“Beyond the physical discomfort, skin issues during chemotherapy hold significant emotional weight,” says Jodie Stellern, a Chicago-based breast cancer survivor. “Your skin is a canvas that reflects your health and vitality, and when it undergoes changes, it can trigger confidence and self-esteem issues.”
Kerry Spindler is a cancer survivor and paramedical esthetician certified in oncology skin care. She’s the founder of Kerry Spindler Bespoke Aesthetics Spa.
She notes that skin issues can be especially hard during cancer treatment because they can be reminders of the physical and emotional toll of treatment.
Although skin issues during chemotherapy are common, medical staff don’t often address them.
Alex Whitaker Cheadle was diagnosed with stage 1 triple-positive breast cancer in 2018. She received a binder with a ton of information on chemotherapy.
“It included a list of side effects that you should specifically go to the ER if experiencing,” says Cheadle. “The way it’s presented, it makes it seem like any other side effect is not serious at all and something you just have to ‘deal with.’”
Cheadle says her most significant skin issues were extremely dry skin, cracking around the cuticles, and breakouts.
“Even though what I experienced wasn’t life threatening, it did impact my comfort and quality of life,” she says.
Now a women’s health advocate, Cheadle wants others to know dry, cracked skin is painful and more than just a “minor side effect.” Moreover, it’s not something a person has to “just deal with.”
Skin care experts agree that chemotherapy-related skin issues have solutions. Keep the below tips in your back pocket to get the support and care you deserve.
Cheadle advises people to ditch any shame or guilt associated with flagging skin care issues with their care team.
“I find a lot of the time, we just grin and bear it as cancer patients, but it’s not fair to [have to] suffer in silence — and it’s your oncologist’s job to help you out,” Cheadle says. “Don’t be worried that you’re bothering them or bringing up concerns that don’t matter.”
“First and foremost, don’t suffer alone,” he says. “Tell your oncologist or health care provider if you’re having skin issues. Write it down and bring it to your appointment so you don’t forget to ask.”
You may be working with many healthcare professionals during chemo, from oncologists to nurses to radiologists. Having a dermatologist in your corner can be helpful. Some even specialize in oncology care.
“Your body is going through a lot when you’re on chemo, so some treatments won’t be available to you at that time,” Cheadle says. “It’s always helpful to have another expert on your side.”
Amy Huang, MD, a board certified dermatologist, agrees.
“Especially if other solutions aren’t helping, see a dermatologist, and we can help you out,” says Huang.
While it might sound frustratingly simple, drinking water is essential for overall health.
“Staying hydrated is not just a physical necessity but also an emotional one,” says Stellern. “Hydrated skin tends to be more resilient, and the act of consciously caring for your body fosters a sense of control and self-nurturing during a period of upheaval.”
To be clear, drinking water won’t hydrate the skin directly. However, it still plays an important role in healing.
A small 2015 study suggests drinking water could help improve skin hydration, especially if you’re not getting enough.
Research published in 2018 also points to data suggesting dehydration could affect wound healing.
Spindler agrees water can aid healing, yet it’s not always so easy for a person undergoing chemotherapy to consume.
“It’s hard to drink water when you aren’t feeling well,” Spindler says. “If you can’t drink the recommended amount of water, ask your doctor about using an electrolyte packet in the water you can consume.”
Don’t forget, foods can be hydrating too.
“Eat juicy fruits like grapes, watermelon, and blueberries,” suggests Ed Rossman, author of “A Guy’s Guide to Throat Cancer.”
Soups, stews, smoothies, and porridge are high in water content as well.
Applying topical creams can help restore moisture and bring relief.
“Water hydration is great for your overall health but has little effect on the skin’s hydration,” Hayes says. “Direct application of lotions or emollients works best.”
Emollients and occlusives are ingredients that form a protective layer on the skin to help seal and repair the skin barrier.
Huang and Rossman recommend the occlusive Aquaphor.
Choosing products with soothing ingredients is a good idea too.
Common soothing skin care ingredients include:
Always check with medical staff to get the OK on ingredients before using a new moisturizer during treatment.
Spindler suggests avoiding products with fragrances, like cleansers.
“Choose a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free cleanser that doesn’t contain dyes or perfume to keep your skin intact and prevent more damage,” she says.
“The skin can be especially sensitive to fragrances, which are irritating,” she explains.
Spindler advises people to focus on gentle skin care when undergoing chemotherapy.
“Avoid using abrasive exfoliating products and harsh scrubbing techniques for optimal delicate skin care,” she says. “Even the most gentle application of a facial cloth can lead to friction and skin irritation.”
Spindler also recommends avoiding glycolic, retinol, and salicylic acids commonly found in acne products. These ingredients can be harsh and worsen skin issues.
In short, make calming and soothing your new skin care priority.
Increased sensitivity to light is a common side effect of chemotherapy. That means you may be more susceptible to sunburn.
“Avoid the sun’s rays for your skin’s well-being, and dress in loose attire that covers your body,” Spindler says. “Prioritize your skin’s safety by wearing sunglasses, a hat with a wide brim, and using zinc sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.”
You can also wear SPF clothing, long sleeves, and loose, draping fabrics for extra protection.
Surprisingly, one of the best solutions for dry, cracking skin during chemotherapy has nothing to do with a product.
“While undergoing treatments, get as much sleep as you can,” Rossman says.
The regenerative nature of sleep can help your body repair itself, combat fatigue, and help get you through tough days.
Huang agrees — sleep is restorative.
Chemotherapy can be physically and emotionally draining. It can sometimes be a welcome pick-me-up to treat yourself to some pampering, whatever that looks like for you.
“Pampering oneself is a deliberate act of self-love and care,” says Stellern. “Engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation can act as a counterbalance to the emotional strain of treatment.”
The emotional lift from pampering yourself can support your overall mood, energy, and well-being.
Whether it’s a massage, a nature walk, a shopping trip, or takeout from a favorite restaurant, don’t underestimate the power of treating yourself.
A medical esthetician is a specialized skin care professional who can provide medical therapies like laser treatments. They can help you find your “new normal” after treatment.
“For me, acne breakouts because of treatment were horrible and something that lasted well beyond ‘ringing the bell,’” Cheadle says. “I wish I started seeing my aesthetician sooner. We’ve finally been able to get my skin back to its precancer glow.”
If you’re still feeling like your skin needs a boost after treatment is over, seek support from a professional to help bring your inner radiance out. You can ask your cancer care team for a referral to someone specializing in oncology skin care.
Chemotherapy can damage the skin, making it dry, cracked, and sensitive to light. These side effects aren’t just aesthetic — they can be physically and emotionally challenging too.
However, solutions like adding a dermatologist to your care team, practicing safe sun care, and getting enough rest can make a big difference.
Medically reviewed on January 24, 2024
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About the author
Beth Ann Mayer
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.