Dermatologist Dr Kara Heelan recently shared her expert advice with Vogue on how to care for your skin while undergoing treatment for cancer.

Dr Heelan is a specialist in oncodermatology and explained that “approximately half of people treated for cancer will develop a dermatologic issue during treatment affecting hair, skin or nails. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted treatments work by killing cancer cells, while immunotherapy treatments boost the body’s own immune system,” she says. “These effects can have repercussions, not just on the target organ, but also on other organ systems including the skin.”

Your skin can be affected in different ways, depending on the treatment you receive:

  • itchy, dry skin
  • extra sensitivity
  • increased sun sensitivity
  • pigment changes
  • skin can be more susceptible to infection

The first step is to look at your current skincare routine and eradicate any products that will irritate the skin. Dr Heelan recommends avoiding “harsh toners, and any facial treatments that contain alcohol, BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), irritant anti-acne products such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide and scrubs, harsh exfoliants or bead containing products.

“Patients often ask me about continuing their ‘active’ topical skin treatments, like vitamin C or tretinoins. However, this often needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual’s cancer treatment and the specific topical product constitution.”

Dr Heelan also advised which products you should be using. “Exchange soaps for mild, gentle fragrance-free soap substitutes or washes, and take short, warm – not hot – showers and baths,” suggests Dr Heelan. When it comes to the skin on your face, Dr Heelan advised gently patting or dabbing your skin dry after washing and applying moisturisers or other products at this stage. “When the skin is damp, there is increased absorption of topical agents.”

Moisturising is also extremely important for treating dry skin and even before you start your cancer treatment, start building up your skin barrier. “Creams and ointments are usually better at hydrating the skin than lotions or gels, and ceramides can also be quite soothing.”

And, most importantly of all, do not neglect sun protection. “Sun-sensitivity can be particularly severe depending on the drug you are on, and can occur quite quickly. Protect your skin with clothing and SPF and use lip balms with a high SPF, as lips can be particularly sensitive. You don’t have to avoid sunshine holidays, but be very careful and wear protective clothing, and regularly apply sun cream with a high SPF of at least 30. Look for mineral or physical sunscreens, which can be less irritating on very sensitive skin, particularly for acne type skins.”

For more advice on how best to care for your skin while undergoing cancer treatment, Dr Kara Heelan recommends that patients should consider consulting a dermatologist with a special interest in oncodermatolgy. Call us on 020 8661 3372 to arrange a consultation with Dr Heelan.