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

How radiotherapy affects the skin

As with all things, everyone reacts differently to cancer treatments including radiotherapy. Some people experience few side effects from radiation therapy or even none at all, while others find they are more severe.

However, the most common side effects from radiotherapy tend to focus on the skin in the area being treated, unlike chemotherapy which can affect skin across the body. These side effects can seem a bit like a sunburn and include redness, itching, burning and soreness. Unlike sunburn, skin usually reacts to radiation gradually, often starting during the second or third week of treatment, and possibly only in patches.

As treatment goes on, the irritation may increase, and sometimes start to cause peeling or blistering. If the skin breaks it’s important to be aware of the possibility of infection and seek help in treating them very quickly if they do happen so they don’t turn nasty. If this happens it’s worth speaking to your oncologist so that you get the right support, although usually they are pretty forthcoming in discussing infections and what to do about them.

The other possible side effect of radiotherapy on the skin is to see redness or darkening on the other side of your body to the treatment area. This is because the skin can also be affected where the radiotherapy beam leaves the body (the exit site). If this happens, make sure to tell your radiologist.

Once cancer treatment finishes, it isn’t uncommon for the skin to get worse for a couple of weeks before it begins to recover. However, reactions usually settle down between two to four weeks after treatment ends.

While some improvements will happen quickly, some things can take a while to recover. For example, you may find that the treated area has a tanned or pinkish look for up to six months or longer. Also, some people find that very tiny broken veins appear in the treated area as a long term side effect of radiotherapy called telangiectasia. 

Why radiotherapy affects the skin

The reason radiotherapy affects the skin is because that’s what it’s designed to do. High doses of radiation are used to destroy cancer cells, but to reach them they obviously must go through the skin. The result is some damage to healthy cells and tissues near the treatment area, and these are the side effects that you notice. Over the years, the way radiotherapy is used has improved and it has become much more precise, which has reduced the side effects both in the severity and spread that individuals experience them.

As mentioned, different people react in different ways to radiotherapy, however there are things that can impact the severity of the side effects. For example, it can depend on:

  • The type of radiotherapy you have
  • The angle of the radiation beam
  • Your skin type (if your complexion is fair you may be more susceptible to side effects)
  • The dose of radiotherapy
  • What area of the skin is being treated
  • Whether your treatment is post-surgery
  • Whether you've had recent chemotherapy

Also, some areas of your skin may react more than others, so the type of cancer that you have/ where you have it, can have an impact on the side effects you experience. If you are being treated in an area of the body that’s received significant sun exposure over the years it may take longer to heal from the additional damage, areas like the armpit tend to get more irritated because the arm rubs against the radiated skin, and the skin along your bra line can also be more affected as the fabric rubs along it as well.

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

Choosing skincare products that are both safe and effective during cancer treatment can be daunting and extremely confusing. No one ever really understands the labels on high street products but it’s all the more disconcerting when you’re anxious about adding further irritation to sensitive skin, and avoiding ingredients that are known carcinogens.

At Jennifer Young, we have more than one range of products depending on whether you are undergoing active cancer 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 and uses the gentlest ingredients. Meanwhile, our Beyond Beauty collection adds a little more fragrance variety for when you have finished treatment. The benefit of these is that the ingredients they contain are specifically chosen both because they almost never cause negative reactions on sensitive skin, but have also been formulated to help relieve the particular side effects of cancer treatment on the skin.

For example, 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 radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and our Defiant Beauty Intensive Serum is a targeted treatment for areas causing concern. Meanwhile, our Smooth Skin Oil soothes and nourishes skin damaged by side-effects of chemo and radiotherapy, and is particularly effective on scarring.

There are other things you can do to help minimise skin irritation and maximise comfort when skin is sensitive from radiotherapy. For example, it’s advisable to avoid using talcum powder and perfumed soaps and creams, use a deodorant that is free of any metal and don't shave the area being treated. If you can, you may also feel more comfortable wearing loose fitting clothes, preferably made from natural fibres.

As the skin in the treatment area is sensitive it can help if you try to avoid exposure to strong sun or cold winds. So, try to keep skin covered with hats, long sleeves and high factor sun cream. Also talk to your radiologist about things like swimming as chlorine can aggravate the treated area so it may be an idea to avoid it until skin recovers.


Itchy Skin Oil

Intensive Serum

Smooth Skin Oil

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