How chemotherapy affects the skin and what you can do about it

When we think about cancer, unless it’s a journey we have been on ourselves or walked alongside with someone we love, we don’t tend to think about the impact its treatments have on our skin. Chemotherapy is typically associated with hair loss and surgery with scars, but the wider impact that cancer treatment has on our skin and the resulting limitations it places on skincare products can become a significant source of upset, pain and anxiety for cancer patients. It can also have a profound impact on your sense of identity. However, finding the right solutions can give back a small sense of daily relief, empowerment and nurturing by understanding what’s happening, why and what can be done about it safely.   


How chemotherapy affects the skin

As with all things, different people have different experiences with chemotherapy. Some will experience more severe reactions than others, and much will depend on the treatment you’re having – the type of chemotherapy, the dose, the duration and so forth. If you have had other types of cancer treatment in the past, such as radiotherapy, you may also find that the areas where you had that treatment are more predisposed to sensitivities, resulting in a severe rash or burning sensation for example.

No two individuals are exactly the same and neither is their cancer experience or side effects. However, many patients, around 40%, do experience dry, sore, sensitive, angry, flaking, patchy or slightly discoloured skin, and fragile nails as a result of chemotherapy. Equally, for those who have lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy, it’s not unusual to have breakouts on the scalp as well. Other side effects include greater skin sensitivity in general – to ingredients, to temperature, to touch, and in particular to the sun (otherwise known as photosensitivity).

In addition to these physical effects, there is the psychological impact that chemotherapy has when it comes to skincare. That comes from worry, fear and anxiety. These feelings tend to stem from two areas (in addition to the fact that it’s already a time of heightened anxiety). The first is a fear of having a reaction that makes a skin condition worse either aesthetically or by causing pain or discomfort. The second is the worry that somehow using the wrong skincare products could cause or make cancer worse because of potentially carcinogenic ingredients.

Chemotherapy causes the skin to be extremely sensitive, and often that sensitivity can change and increase as treatment progresses. That generally means that you are much more likely to have negative reactions to different skincare ingredients, and that the things you react to may increase or change over time.

While definitive knowledge of what you are and are not sensitive to is a matter of trial and error, there are certain natural ingredients that almost never cause a negative reaction. In addition, it’s much easier to work out what you are reacting to if there’s a very limited number of ingredients in an individual product. It is for these reasons that the Jennifer Young skincare products are all natural, have been designed for highly sensitive skin, and why they all contain a minimal number of components.  For example, commonly featured ingredients include gentle apricot kernel oil, healing calendula and nourishing shea butter. 


Why chemotherapy affects the skin

Chemotherapy is an aggressive treatment designed to address an aggressive illness. As cancer cells tend to grow comparatively quickly, chemotherapy drugs are intended to act fast in attacking and killing them. However, chemotherapy is not yet as discerning as we might like in identifying which cells to attack. It works by travelling throughout the body and as a result can affect normal, healthy cells that are fast-growing, too. It is this damage to healthy cells that causes the unwanted side effects. The most commonly affected healthy cells include:

  • Blood-forming cells in the bone marrow
  • Hair follicles
  • Cells in the mouth, digestive tract and reproductive system

In some cases, there are additional treatments that can be administered in order to help protect some of the body’s normal cells or to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. For example, you may have been given medication to help with nausea. 

Doctors do always try to prescribe chemotherapy levels that are high enough to treat the cancer whilst keeping the side effects to a minimum, and healthcare workers will offer support and advice on how to handle certain side effects. For example, you will most likely be given advice about sun exposure as part of your patient care although many cancer patients strive to avoid the sun during treatment.


What can be done to help take care of your skin?

Unless you’re faced with it, having to change your skincare products due to sensitivities might not sound like a particularly significant issue in the context of a cancer diagnosis. However, for the person involved it can mean several things.

Firstly, it’s another area of personal identity and choice that is being taken away by cancer. Secondly, it can make choosing skincare products an enormous source of anxiety – not knowing what is going to cause a painful reaction, or worse whether the products you choose could be carcinogenic themselves. Thirdly, it can become extremely time consuming and frustrating when you don’t really have the emotional or physical energy to be either of those things.

Importantly, having access to skincare that isn’t just safe, but really addresses some of the side effects of cancer treatment and are joyful to use, can be a source of enormous positivity. It provides some relief to itchy or sore skin which helps to reduce one area of concern and gives a sense of control.

Equally, having products that are enjoyable to use can provide a period of mindfulness in the everyday rituals, and moments in which you know you are doing something to nurture your body (and mind) while so much of the time it is being battered and bruised by the combination of illness and aggressive treatment.   

In terms of where to begin, we have more than one collection of products at Jennifer Young, depending on whether you are undergoing active treatment or whether you are recovering from it. Our Defiant Beauty range is specifically for anyone undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy so it has minimal fragrance (which can cause nausea) and uses the gentlest ingredients. Meanwhile, our Beyond Beauty collection adds a little more fragrance variety for when you have finished treatment

It’s a good idea to start with the basics of what you need for every day. For example, our Defiant Beauty Cleanse & Moisturise product is a favourite because of its multifaceted use and effectiveness as a daily cleanser, moisturiser and face mask. Even if you don’t use a daily body moisturiser at the moment, it’s a good idea to have one to hand in case you need it, or simply because it’s a moment of restoration and kindness for your skin and body. Our Raw Shea Butter is naturally rich in vitamins A and E and helps to filter UV rays from the sun.

Our Itchy Skin Oil has also been created in response to feedback from cancer patients and what they feel they need whilst being treated with chemotherapy, and we also offer a collection of product to both care for and help protect the nails – including gentle nail varnishes that are safe to use during treatment. Meanwhile, one area of the body that many cancer patients feel they don’t know how to look after is the scalp. While our initial advice would be to think of it as an extension of the face, and to treat it similarly, we do have a collection of dedicated products that are intended to help cool, soothe and care for the scalp following hair loss, with our Dry Scalp Treatment being a particular favourite.

Our goal at Jennifer Young has always been to demystify the information surrounding skincare and cancer treatment and to make it easy to find products that are safe but also helpful. Crucially, however, we want to enable cancer patients to continue to enjoy the personal benefits of an enjoyable and indulgent skincare routine for a sense of positive, self-care when you most need it.

While we have endeavoured to provide as much information as possible here, if you would like any advice on what products to use, please do not hesitate to contact us any time.