Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Skin & nails

During cancer treatment, you may notice changes in your skin and/or nails. Some skin reactions include redness, rashes, peeling, thin or fragile skin, very dry/flaky skin and/or increased sensitivity to sunlight. Your fingernails may become weak, break or lift off, or develop ridges.

For example, a common side effect of radiation therapy is skin irritation in the treated area, particularly in areas where the skin is thin and smooth (e.g., face, neck) or where you have body folds (e.g., breast, buttocks, abdomen, armpit, groin). Your skin may become red, sensitive, dry, itchy or moist. Sores or ulcers may also develop. Later effects of radiation may include darkening or thinning of the skin. Fortunately, most skin reactions are temporary and will usually go away a few weeks of completing radiation therapy.

There are several innovative radiation techniques that may help to reduce damage to skin tissue. There are also many comfort measures and medications available to relieve skin irritation caused by radiation therapy. Your doctor may prescribe topical drugs in the form of therapeutic creams or ointments, antibiotics to treat infection, antihistamines to reduce swelling or itching, and/or analgesics (pain medications) to alleviate discomfort. For severe skin reactions, such as a redness that evolves into blistering, moist weeping, or infection, your doctor may discontinue treatment for a period of time to allow the skin to heal.

Tips for taking care of your skin & nails

  • To help prepare yourself, ask your doctor ahead of time what skin changes you can expect during treatment.
  • Wash your skin with lukewarm water and mild, non-perfumed soap. Don’t rub or scrub your skin. Gently pat dry with a soft towel.
  • Consult with your doctor first before using any skin care products. Your doctor may prescribe cleansing, protective, moisturizing, drying, anti-itch or anti-inflammatory agents.
  • Avoid perfumes, deodorants, body oils, bubble bath, scented lotions, cosmetics or products containing alcohol. Your doctor may recommend non-allergenic products.
  • To avoid cuts, use an electric razor for shaving. Do not use a pre-shave lotion, aftershave or hair removal products.
  • If you need to bandage the skin, use paper rather than adhesive tape and try to apply the tape outside of the treatment area.
  • If you had treatment to your head, be gentle when combing or brushing your hair. Use a mild shampoo (e.g., baby shampoo) and avoid using curling irons.
  • For dry skin, use creams that soften skin and moisturize (avoid perfumed or scented lotions).
  • Keep your hands moisturized and your nails cut short (avoid cutting cuticles). Avoid using artificial fingernails, which can harbor bacteria. If you wear nail polish, use nail polish removers which contain oil to prevent drying.
  • Wear gloves to protect your nails when doing housework or gardening.
  • Soak your nails in (or massage with) vegetable or olive oil.
  • If your nails break or lift off, try to keep them clean and protected.
  • Protect your skin from extreme heat or cold temperatures. Dress properly and avoid using heating pads, hot water bottles or ice packs.
  • Avoid clothes that are tight-fitting, such as collars, bras, girdles and pantyhose. Avoid wearing irritating or scratchy fabrics, such as wool, that may rub your skin. Instead, try soft cotton clothes and bed sheets.
  • Wash your clothes in mild, gentle detergents.
  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids each day to keep your body hydrated. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
  • Stay out of the sun. If you must be in the sun, use sunglasses, sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and wear a hat and protective clothing.
  • Check your skin daily to look for any changes which can lead to infection. Let your doctor know if your skin looks or feels different, or if you notice any cuts or open areas.

NOTE: This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to making decisions about your treatment.