Chemotherapy Dries Skin

Chemotherapy is easier on the skin than on the hair. Even so, whatever a person's skin type, chemotherapy will make skin drier because the drugs interfere with oil and sweat glands. Keeping skin as moist as possible during treatment is important to keep it looking young and healthy. Moisture can also prevent cracking and chapping, which can lead to infection in the cancer patient, whose immune system is suppressed.

Cancer patients are advised never to pull, tug or scrub the face too hard. Overzealous cleansing can strip away the remaining natural oils. Soap-free face cleansers that gently cleanse makeup and oil without drying skin are preferable. It is recommended to use an antimicrobial soap, however, to effectively clean areas like the armpits and genitals, which are prone to infection.

Moisturizing day and night can slow down the skin's loss of moisture by leaving behind a filmy deposit of oil. The oil not only helps retard the moisture evaporation, but it also makes the surface of the skin softer and more pliable. This may be especially important for hands and soles of the feet, which may become sore and blistered. Rubber gloves should be used when doing household chores.

Cancer patients are advised to moisturize with products containing sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 because people undergoing chemotherapy may be more sensitive to harmful ultraviolet rays.

Dry, chapped lips can be helped with nonpigmented lip balms or petrolatum-based products, according to Harley Haynes, M.D., a dermatologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He recommends using lipsticks only when lips are in good condition. Chemotherapy may also affect nails, retarding their growth and, in many cases, causing them to become thin and brittle and develop horizontal grooves.

It's not a good idea to cover the nails with acrylics or other types of wraps, says Haynes, since these materials can trap bacteria that may cause infection. Instead, the nails can be clipped short and moisturized with lotions. A light-color nail polish will camouflage any nail imperfections. But to prevent nails from drying out, only non-acetone-based nail polish remover should be used.

Cancer patients who have professional manicures should bring their own implements to guard against infection. Cuticles should be pushed back rather than cut.

The above information has been provided with the kind permission of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (

For more, please visit the Chemotherapy Center and Cancer Center.

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Last Editorial Review: 1/8/2003