Caring for Your Skin during and after Cancer Treatment

Caring for Your Skin during and after Cancer Treatment

Dermatologist Mario Lacouture leads an interdisciplinary effort to minimize the effects of cancer treatment on your skin, hair, nails, and eyes.

VIDEO | 13:00
Memorial Sloan Kettering skin care expert Mario Lacouture describes a variety of treatments for skin infections, inflammation, discoloration, and scars.
Video Details

As the body’s first line of defense against sunlight, chemicals, and infectious germs, the skin is also one of the areas of the body most commonly affected by treatments for cancer.

The good news is that skin reactions are usually temporary and treatments are available to help patients cope with these side effects. Unfortunately, many patients do not receive the medical attention they need to address them.

“We have made incredible progress in developing better cancer treatments, but in doing so a real gap in many patients’ skin health has emerged,” says Mario E. Lacouture, a Memorial Sloan Kettering dermatologist who specializes in treating skin conditions that result from cancer treatment.

In an interview, Dr. Lacouture describes some of the most common dermatologic side effects of anticancer medications, radiation therapy, and surgery, and offers suggestions for lessening their impact.

What should patients receiving medications such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy keep in mind in terms of dermatologic side effects?

Skin reactions are not unusual among cancer patients. Whether you experience one will depend in part on the type and dose of medications you receive and whether radiation therapy is part of your treatment.

Usually your doctor will be able to tell you before treatment begins whether the medication you are receiving may cause skin reactions. In fact, for some medications, a rash is considered a sign that the therapy is working.

Early intervention is key to preventing side effects from worsening. Once you begin treatment, write down any skin reactions you notice and bring them to the attention of your healthcare team.

Dry and itchy skin is common, as are changes to the nails.

Rash – which may look like acne or measles in appearance – is the dermatologic side effect we see most often in patients receiving anticancer medications. Taking photos of the affected area to bring to your next appointment can be helpful to your doctor, as rashes tend to change in appearance.

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Is it OK to use cosmetics to cover up rashes caused by anticancer medications?

It is perfectly fine to use cosmetics on rashes. But keep in mind that anything that comes in contact with the skin may cause irritation.

When you first begin applying cosmetics, I recommend trying only one product at a time. Some people find they have developed new allergies, even to products they used regularly in the past.

If you have an acne-like rash, do not to use acne medications as that may cause even more irritation.

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Do you have suggestions for patients who are experiencing dry, itchy skin?

Many cancer treatments can cause or worsen dry skin because they slow down the skin’s ability to renew itself.

Look for creams and ointments, which are generally more effective than lotions at retaining moisture, and select products that are fragrance free. These should be applied at least twice a day, preferably within 15 minutes after showering or bathing. Try not to stay in the shower too long, use lukewarm or warm water instead of hot, and avoid scrubs or loofahs, which can strip away natural oils and contain many bacteria after repeated use.

If your skin is itchy, be sure to tell your healthcare team so they can help you select the best treatment. It is important to use fragrance-free soaps, creams, and detergents. And avoid scratching, even though it may be difficult. Look for over-the-counter creams that contain anti-itch substances such as menthol, camphor, or pramoxine, or consider taking an oral antihistamine.

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How can patients manage changes to their nails?

VIDEO | 06:00
Memorial Sloan Kettering skin care expert Mario Lacouture discusses the effects of cancer treatment on nails.
Video Details

 Nail changes occur more often in patients receiving targeted therapies and certain chemotherapy drugs such as paclitaxel and docetaxel. These changes are typically cosmetic, meaning the texture or color of the nails is affected, but some patients do experience pain and discomfort in their nails. While prevention is difficult, there are simple steps you can take to manage nail changes.

Keep your nails trimmed and wear gloves when working with your hands. During chemotherapy, avoid manicures and pedicures, and do not trim your cuticles. If you experience discoloration, consider using a dark, water-based nail polish free of harsh chemicals, particularly dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. Because nail polish remover can be damaging I don’t recommend changing polishes too frequently.

Once you have completed chemotherapy, you can resume manicures and pedicures and use a nail strengthener or a natural supplement, such as biotin.

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For patients who have had surgery, what are some signs that a scar may not be healing properly?

If you have scars that do not seem to be healing, or have increased in size, tell your surgeon right away. Other signs of a problematic scar include itchiness, dryness, and tightness.

Dry or itchy scars may be treated with corticosteroid creams. Patients with scarring that restricts movement in the joints or limbs can often benefit from physical therapy.

Keloids [extra growths of scar tissue that may be lumpy or rigid in appearance] are another concern. A plastic surgeon or dermatologist can perform a procedure called scar revision or laser treatment to remove excess tissue and make the scar less noticeable.

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What should patients receiving radiation be aware of?

VIDEO | 06:00
Memorial Sloan Kettering dermatologist Mario Lacouture discusses the impact of radiation therapy on skin.
Video Details

External-beam radiation is the type of radiation therapy that most often causes dermatologic side effects. These may include swelling, itching, pain, or inflammation.


Take care with the affected area. Wash with warm water and mild soap. When using a towel, pat the area dry instead of rubbing it and wear loose-fitting cotton clothes. In many cases, skin problems connected to radiation therapy can be prevented with corticosteroid creams, or lessened with oral antibiotics if an infection has already developed, when used from the beginning of or during radiation treatment.

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Do you have any general advice for patients who have already completed treatment?

If you are a cancer patient or survivor and don’t already have a dermatologist caring for your skin, now is the time to find one. It’s a good idea to bring your medical records to your first appointment, so your dermatologist knows the specifics of your treatment. And keep the other members of your care team informed of any treatments your dermatologist recommends.

Being safe in the sun is the most important general piece of advice I can give. Most anticancer medications and radiation therapy increase your sensitivity to the sun, and studies have shown that skin cancer rates are greater in survivors. In most cases, good skin care and early intervention are all that is needed to achieve the best possible skin health.


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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

I have metastatic bone cancer which resulted in a fractured femur. This occurred most recently in May of 2012 and previously Feb 2011.
I was on a dose dense schedule of Gemzar but within the last three months have had a schedule reduction. Recently I have lines of blotches around my fractured hip, it looks like bruises but it is not. Is this from my treatment?

Dear Cori, unfortunately, we are not able to answer personal medical questions on our blog. We recommend that you check with your medical oncologist or dermatologist to discuss whether this is a side effect of your treatment. Thank you for your comment.


I developed lymphadema after hysterectomy, in my left leg, I periodically get a rash and very dry skin on my feet, which in turn leaves cracks which led to cellulitis 3x in the last year that required hospitalization. What treatment would you recommend for the itchy rash, leg swelling, and dry skin to prevent this happening in the future.

Dear Maureen, unfortunately, we are not able to answer personal medical questions on our blog. We recommend that you check with your surgeon and/or dermatologist to discuss the best treatment for you specific to your symptoms and medical history. You can also call our Dermatology Service at 212-610-0079. Thank you for your comment.

I am a survivor of pharyngeal cancer. I live in Puerto Rico. I receive 40 radiotherapy. My esophagus was received radiation although the tumor was not in it. Seven years have passed and I only can swallow a special drink, because it is like a "spaguetti". The surgeon ha stried has dilatatine
me in 2007, 208 and 2013, but he explains me that it is so rigid, that he do not insist and only dilator # 1 is used. I want to know if you can do a new esophagus, plastic, or helping with mother cells. Only my Faith in Jesus help me, because is terrible seeing food, announces, family special feasts, and I have to contain my tears not to make my family suffer.

I do not live in the states. I live in Puerto Rico. I depend on my Social Security monthly payment . But if if it a solution or surgery or whatever to my situation of a replacement of my radiated esophagus, I will move any institutions or churches help to have an esophagus to be happy, to have the opportunity to join my family eating all in the table as we do seven years ago.

I've had numerous surgeries, [about 18+] from ovarian cancer, an active adrenal tumor, and then bone cancer. The stylist who cuts my hair [hadn't seen her for over a year due to treatment] actually asked if I had surgery recently with anesthesia because she said the texture and color of my hair was different. In her opinion, she told me the after effects of anesthesia was very damaging to hair. Is this true? [I also noticed my hair looked and felt different, but never connected the two as the culprit]. And if so, is there a remedy?

Dear Deborah,
Thank you for your comment. We reached out to Dr. Lacouture, and this is what he said: “The physical and emotional stress from surgeries can lead to a temporary thinning or loss of hair known has ’telogen effluvium.’ This condition is temporary in the great majority of cases, and hair should grow normally within a few months. However, there is no evidence that anesthesia itself will affect hair growth or texture. If you are having hair issues, a consultation with a dermatologist is advisable, as there may be other causes of hair thinning.”

My brother's skin has become ultra-sensitive due to seven years of chemotherapy. Would you kindly recommend a cream or gel that would facilitate shaving. Thank you for all consideration. Best wishes.

Rosanna, unfortunately we have not yet heard back from Dr. Lacouture. We cannot offer personal medical advice on our blog, but we do recommend that your brother make an appointment with a dermatologist. If he is a patient of Memorial Sloan Kettering, he may want to call his doctor’s office to schedule an appointment with Dr. Lacouture.

I just made a new friend and she recently completed chemotherapy for breast cancer. I make home made soaps and I am planning on making an Olive Oil soap for her since I am told it is the most gentle. No fragrance obviously. I would also like to make her a body butter to help combat her dry skin. Obviously I won't be using fragrance in that either and only the highest quality butters and oils. Is there anything I should know that will make sure this product will be safe for her and not an irritant? I plan to use Coco, Mango, Kokum and Shea butters, Coconut Oil, Jojoba Oil and Vitamin E. Should any of those be avoided for her particular situation? Thank you in advance.

Diane, many apologies for the delay. We did hear back from Dr. Lactouture about ingredients in soap. Here’s what he had to say:

“The most common irritants and allergens in soaps are:
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Balsam of Peru
Coconut Diethanolamide

That said, any product can cause irritation or allergy, so if any skin irritation is observed, please consult with a dermatologist (”

I have explain so many article of this site in which some of them were very interesting and inspiring.This article has good title with good description.

Patients taking Tarceva experience the acne form rash mentioned in your article. What topical ointments are recommended to decrease the outbreak of this rash? And which moisturizers would be recommended for the face for this acne form rash?

Thanks for your question, Kim. We forwarded your comment to Dr. Lacouture, and we’ll let you know what he says.

Kim, we just heard back from Dr. Lacouture. He recommends topical corticosteroids and antibiotics, as well as fragrance-free moisturizers.

I have finished 5 months of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation for triple negative breast cancer. I have noticed that every time I get extremely hot, my skin itches all over. Is this a side effect of the chemo or radiation?

Dear Chevella, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Unfortunately, we cannot answer personal medical questions like this on our blog. We would encourage you to consult with your oncologist. If you would like to make an appointment with one of our specialists, please call our Physician Referral Service at 800-525-2225. Thank you for your comment.

Does tarceva treatment for adenacarcinoma of the lung cause hair shedding? If so what can be done to slow or stop it.

Dear Bonnie, according to this patient education sheet about Tarceva, hair loss is not listed as one of the side effects, however it may cause changes in your hair and nails. Learn more here:

You may also be interested in reading our blog post on what you can do to cope with hair loss due to cancer treatment:

Thank you for your question.

taking Care of Skin after suffering form such an terrible disease needs Courage but it shoul be nessecessary for Skin Australian skin care

I had breast cancer and after radiation treatment, I have rashes on my face and neck. How can I treat this?

Dear Anna, our doctors can’t give personalized medical advice on our blog, but you might find some of the information provided in this video helpful: If you are an MSK patient, you are welcome to make an appointment with Dr. Lacouture. Otherwise, you might want to consider making an appointment with a dermatologist in your area. Thanks so much for your question.

Awesome article about skin cancer and treatments. Thanks for sharing this information.

I had a bone cancer ''sarcoma'' and my treatment lasted about a year
i had rashes on my upper back scalp and face
and now i have finished the treatment 4 months ago.
The rashes now are less than before but still they don't go totally
is this natural and how long they may last in general?

Sosan, we’re sorry that you’ve had this experience. We recommend that you speak to someone from your healthcare team about this, or ask them to refer you to a dermatologist who has experience treating cancer patients. If you’d like to speak to someone at MSK, you can call 800-525-2225 or go to for more information. Thank you for your comment.

After 2+ years of intensive chemo and almost daily prophylactic antibiotics (along with 21 days of vancomycin due to infection), treatment for ALL ended (hooray!) and survivorship began. Accompanying this shift was the onset of very bad acne. Nothing seems to clear it up--and I'm reluctant to go back to antibiotics, having experienced a scorched earth approach to my microbiome in treatment already. The only thing that cleared it up was sun--but I don't live in a sunny place. Any suggestions?

Hi Carolyn, thanks so much for reaching out. Unfortunately, we can’t answer such specific medical questions on our blog. But it sounds as if you may want to see a dermatologist at the cancer center where you received care or at another academic medical center. Also, we’d encourage you to not spend too much in the sun, since survivors are at a greater risk for skin cancers! Best wishes to you!

Do you have any clinic in Canada.

Lylyn, we do not have any locations in Canada. We are based in New York City and have several outpatient locations in the New York-area. If you’d like to learn about coming to MSK as an international patient, you can go to for more information. Thank you for your comment.

Completed rchop 5 months ago. Initial treatment resulted in tumor lysis. Subsequent treatments required a week in the hospital. The bumps started a few months ago the itch at first and seem to rotate as to whic group gets itchy new patch comes every few days. Usually 3 to 4 pimples on differnt parts of body. No pattern. Any idea or treatment ideas.

Dear Greg, we would recommend you talk to your doctor about this. He or she would be able to examine you and determine whether this is a side effect of treatment or an unrelated condition, and then recommend an appropriate treatment. If you were treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering and would like to make an appointment with one of our dermatologists for a skin consultation, please call 212-610-0078. Thanks for reaching out to us.

This blog is so general, it doesn't offer cancer patients much help. There is no specific information here. Advertising to cancer patients who are desperate for help is cruel.

This blog is SO general, it appears to be an advertisement rather than actually offering cancer patients help. It's too bad the FDA has stifled real cancer research and only promotes radiation and chemo to treat cancer. I just finished 6 weeks of chemo and radiation....and my oncologist refused to discuss nutrition, canibis, or any other possible treatment. It's chemo and radiation, that's it. I am left with dark spots where the radiation treatment was applied......and this blog is completely void of any real information. Ugh.

I had a right mastectomy and completed chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer last year. It has been 10 months since i completed radiation and my chest is still a significant shade darker than the rest of my skin. Are there any treatments/techniques to get my normal skin tone back?

Annabelle, thank you for your comment.

If don’t already have a dermatologist caring for your skin, we recommending making an appointment with one to address this symptom and answer your questions about skin tone. (And it will help to bring your medical records to your first appointment, so the dermatologist knows the specifics of your treatment.)

Also, here is some additional information that may be helpful:…

My mom was treated with radiation for Breast cancer and she is currently suffering from excessive itching after 4 years. Doctor says everything is ok after blood tests and others, skin doctor gave some cream but its not working out even after couple of cream change. Its being said that there is no cure for this. She is really exhausted and seeking some help, her condition is very bad due to itching. Please let me know any cure for this..

We’re sorry to hear that your mom is going through this. We recommend that she look for a dermatologist who specializes in treating cancer patients. Her radiation oncologist may be able to recommend someone. Thank you for your comment.

I have non hodgkin lymphoma, and i am on chemo. I have numb finger tips and my nails are chipped. I have acne. How do i take care of these. Especially my skin is sagging as well.

Sandra, we recommend you discuss this with your healthcare team, and ask them for a referral to a dermatologist who specializes in treating these kinds of problems. Thank you for your comment.

May I just say what a comfort to discover someone who genuinely understands what they're discussing on the internet.
You actually know how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More people really need to read this and understand this side of your story.

Dear Diane, we are glad to know that the information on our blog has been helpful. Thank you for your comment!

i have stared treament on Dec 23, 2016. I did have issues with my feet feet but quickly figures out i was putting heat on them(wrong!) but they are fine now . But my hands are bloatted cant wear my wedding rings any suggestions to reduce this . i use the computer for work, is it possible i need to cut my hours?

Hi Chandra, we’re sorry to hear that you’re experiencing side effects from your treatment. We recommend that you discuss your concerns with your healthcare team. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

I was diagnosed with Salivary Duct Carcinoma in January 2012. My teeth were extracted and did not receive my dentures until 7 1/2 months later. There are wrinkles around my mouth and on the left side of my face. I am on a limited income. Do you have any suggestions?

Dear Rebecca, we are sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Support programs are available through a nonprofit organization called “Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer” or SPOHNC: They offer local chapters established throughout the country as well as online resources and support. We hope this is helpful. Thank you for reaching out to us.

Hi I have an avm in the brain and I have had radiation treatment on it, it has left me with itchy sore skin especially on the face and neck what is the best way to treat it thank you.

Dear Judy, unfortunately we are not able to offer treatment advice on our blog. We recommend that you ask your radiation oncologist or your primary care physician for a referral to a dermatologist who specializes in working with people who have this condition. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.