Why cancer causes skin problems – and practical tips for making life better
People living with cancer often suffer from skin problems, like dryness, scaliness, itchiness and weak fingernails. These can be caused by the cancer itself, or they can be side effects of a treatment.
For some people these skin problems can be annoying – for others they can be severe and difficult to bear.
This guide explains what can happen to your skin if you have cancer or cancer treatment. It also gives practical tips shared by members of the Live Better With cancer community – real people who have experienced cancer-related skin problems, and found ways to live better.
(Please note, this guide is about skin problems caused by cancer. It is not about skin cancer or melanoma skin cancer.)
In this guide:
What causes skin problems?
There are a number of possible causes of skin problems if you have cancer. These include:
- The cancer itself. Some types of cancer cause itching. It is not fully known why this happens, but it may be because of the body’s reaction to the tumour or due to substances released by the tumour. Often the itching is all over the body and worst on the chest or legs. This itching usually eases when you have cancer treatment.
- Cancer treatments. Sometimes treatments like chemotherapy have side effects that make your skin dry, scaly or itchy. Your fingernails can become brittle or weak. If you lose hair the areas left exposed, such as your scalp, can be sensitive. Radiotherapy exposes your skin to radiation, which can make it sore, dry or itchy. It might also become red or look darker than usual. Biological therapy and hormone therapy can cause skin rashes.
- Allergic reactions. Some people feel itchy after starting a new cancer treatment. This may be a sign of an allergy to a drug or treatment. You should talk to your doctor or nurse if this happens to you.
- Jaundice. Some kinds of cancer – such as cancer of the liver or pancreas – can cause jaundice. This is when a build-up of bile in your bloodstream and body tissues makes your skin yellow and itchy. You will need to see your doctor if you have jaundice.
Helping with dry and scaly skin
Here are some things you can do to help with dry and scaly skin:
- Watch out for chemicals. Where possible, avoid products like cosmetics and household cleaning products that are full of chemicals. Instead buy organic or eco products.
“Avoid everything that is laden with chemicals. Find cosmetics, shampoo, soap and cleaning products that are free from particular nasties.” Hazel, Live Better With community member
- Use moisturisers regularly throughout the day. This will help keep your skin hydrated. Avoid products that are heavily perfumed or contain lanolin. Instead choose colourless products or products developed especially for cancer patients.
- Try urea-based lotions. Urea based body lotions and moisturisers are better for reducing dryness, scaling and itching than the usual glycerol-based creams. Products with 10% urea are a good choice.
- Use hand creams. Your hands can become very dry and cracked, especially if you’re washing them very often. A good hand cream will help soothe your skin.
“I had very dry and flaking skin on the palms of my hands and insteps as an intense reaction to a new drug I was taking. This little pot of cream helped immensely. A very good buy.” Deirdre – reviewing Defiant Beauty Healing Hand Balm.
- Use oil or lotion-based facial cleansers. Avoid using alcohol or water-based facial cleansers as these can make your skin even dryer. Instead chose an oil or lotion based cleanser which will clean your skin and keep it moisturised too.
- Try unscented lip balms. Some lip balms, like Badger Balm, contain no added scents, colours or sweeteners – which may be good when you have very dry and sensitive skin.
- Take care in the sun. Use chemical-free sunscreens when going out. We recommend Caribbean Blue Sunscreen.
Coping with itchy skin
Cancer and cancer treatments can cause very itchy skin. For some people this itching can be severe, making it hard to relax and to get to sleep. Here are some things you can do about it:
- Speak to your doctor. Itching may be caused by a drug or treatment, perhaps because you have an allergy. There may be medications that can help you. Your doctor will be able to advise you on this.
- Don’t scratch. This is easier said than done, but scratching can make skin worse and lead to more itching. One tip is to keep your fingernails short, so you can’t do too much damage.
- Try itch relieving lotions. Special lotions like E45 Itch Relief Cream can help ease the need to scratch by soothing and cooling the skin. Calendula cream can be a very good natural help for itchy and irritated skin.
“The Lyonsleaf calendula cream is simply the best cream I managed to find for my skin. It really helped reduce and mostly eliminate the dryness, itchiness and general irritation. My skin became much softer within a week of use. Impressive!” Live Better With community member.
- Stay cool. Itchiness can be worse if you get hot. Keep rooms at a cool temperature. Cooling sprays and spritzes can be a quick help.
- Use alternative soaps, shower gels and bubble baths. If you notice your skin is itchier after you have a bath or shower, try using natural or alternative products, like calendula soap. Take shorter baths in lukewarm rather than hot water. Pat rather than rub your skin when drying yourself with a towel.
- Wear cotton or bamboo. Man-made fabrics can make irritate your skin. Choose clothes made from lightweight fabrics made from natural fibres such as cotton for your clothes and bedding. Bamboo is a great fabric for people with sensitive and itchy skin.
Itching or sore skin can keep you awake at night. Here are some tips for getting a better night’s rest:
- Sleep in bamboo. Bamboo is a very soft, silky, cool fabric that is perfect for bedding and pyjamas. The gentle fabric is also hypoallergenic, so is less likely to irritate the skin.
- Try sleep balms. Aromatherapy oils can help you drop off and get a deeper sleep. Why not spray some lavender on your pillow, or use a natural sleep balm? Try Badger Sleep Balm or Cotswold Lavender Slumber Spray.
“Just what I need after a long day. The scent isn’t too strong, just enough to gently lull me off to sleep. I put a bit under my nose, on my temples, and I rub some into my eyebrows which is making them strong and shiny. My new favourite bedtime ritual.” – Review by ‘P’ of Badger Sleep Balm.
- Try mindfulness exercises. Some people find that mindfulness can help them to get better sleep. One popular book is The Little Book of Mindfulness by Dr Patrizia Collard.
Coping with a sensitive scalp
If you have hair loss after chemotherapy, your scalp can be sensitive and itchy. Here are tips from the Live Better With community. You can also read our full guide to hair loss and cancer here.
- Use an exfoliating sponge. This helps to gently massage your scalp and remove dead skin.
- Use unperfumed moisturiser on skin where you have lost hair.
- Use gentle shampoo. Use gentle, organic, natural shampoos, and avoid ones with chemicals.
- Wear a sleep hat at night. Wearing a soft cap at night will make you more comfortable. It can also collect any hairs that fall out while you sleep. We recommend a cotton indoor sleep hat.
- Use pillows with natural fibres.
- Spray your head with a scalp spritz. A spray can help cool and soothe your scalp, especially on hot days.
- Beware of sunburn. Make sure you protect areas where you have hair loss from sunburn, using chemical-free sunscreens. Try Caribbean Blue Sunscreen.
“My scalp was always very irritated during treatment. And when the short hair grew back it was worse. I found this scalp spritz and it has done wonders for me.” Live Better With Community member
Looking after weak and brittle nails
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can cause changes to your nails, both on your fingers and toes. They might become brittle, cracked, discoloured or weak. You might even lose your nails. After chemo they should grow back to normal. Here are some things you can do in the meantime:
- Look after your cuticles. Prevent dryness and splitting by gently rubbing cuticle cream into the cuticle area daily. Don’t cut your cuticles if they’re not frayed. Instead, use cuticle remover cream or gels and push your nails back gently.
- Try a nail repair solution. You can soothe brittle or tender nails and treat nails that split, ridged or discoloured with a specifically-designed solution. A top-rated product in the Live Better With community is Evaux EvoNail Nail Repair Solution. One user said it worked it even better than expected and that ‘even the doctor wanted to know more about it’.
- Avoid acrylics and other nail wraps. Fake nails can trap bacteria that may cause infection.
- Use moisturising nail drops. Putting moisturising nail drops on your nail bed will help keep your it healthy and improve nail strength and appearance.
- Use water-based nail polishes in darker shades. You may want to try a darker shade of nail polish than usual, to help hide any discolouration.
- Use a gentle nail polish remover. Avoid polish removers containing acetone, ethylacetate, or other harsh solvents. Our community recommends Evaux EvoNail Ultra-Gentle Nail Cleanser, a gentle remover designed specially for water-based nail polish.
- Try vitamin supplements. During chemo you can help protect your nails as well as your skin and hair by taking a vitamin supplement. A one-a-day tablet often recommended by the Live Better With community is Lindens Biotin. It is specially formulated to give a boost to your body’s natural keratin production, which helps both hair and nails.
“My nails look to be growing back well and the new nail looks healthy.” Review of Lindens Biotin supplement by community member Lorraine.
- Wear cooling gloves or slippers during chemo treatment. These can reduce the amount of chemo drug reaching your nails and so helps stop them from falling out. You will need to speak to your doctor first to find out if they are suitable for you.
Share your skin care tips
Have you suffered skin problems when having cancer treatment? Did you find ways to make life better? If so, we’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.