woman experiencing skin irritation after radiation therapy

How to Care for Skin During Radiation

woman experiencing skin irritation after radiation therapy

Radiation is one of the best treatments we have in fighting and curing cancer. While modern radiation treatments have fewer side effects than their predecessors, treatments may still irritate the skin of radiation patients. 

If you or a loved one are undergoing radiation treatments, there are ways to take care of the skin during and after treatment that will help avoid or alleviate negative side effects. 

By observing the following suggestions and communicating closely with your cancer care team at SERO, together we can care for your skin during radiation. 

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How Radiation Therapy May Affect Your Skin

Modern radiation treatments are non-invasive, efficient, and so precise that they usually spare the surrounding organs from any negative side effects. However, the powerful radiation beams that target cancer cells first have to pass through your skin, and this may have an effect on it.

Many patients experience some changes to the skin at the site of their radiation. This may include: 

  • Discoloration (pink or tan at first, then darkening or reddening as treatment progresses)
  • Swelling
  • Dryness and flaking
  • Tightness
  • Sensitivity 
  • Itchiness 
  • Rashes or blisters

Usually, these side effects are at their worst within two weeks of your last treatment. The side effects to your skin may extend several weeks past your treatment. 

Immediately alert your care team if other symptoms arise, including: 

  • Bleeding
  • Drainage
  • A temperature of 100.4F or higher
  • Chills
  • Increased pain 

Caring for Your Skin During Radiation 

By caring for your skin during radiation, you can reduce these side effects. Doing so can also decrease sensitivity when you undergo treatments and help your skin heal quickly once your treatments are finished. 

Keep Your Treatment Area Clean

  • Shower every day. Afterward, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel. Do not rub the skin dry. 
  • Use a gentle cleanser and rinse thoroughly. Your soap should be unscented. We recommend brands like Cetaphil, Neutrogena, and Dove. Baby soap is also a great, mild cleanser. 
  • When you wash your treatment area, be very careful and wash with your hands. Do not use anything abrasive to wash the area, like a loofah, sponge, or washcloth. 
  • Do not shave the treatment area. 
  • Do not wash off your treatment marks. 

Carefully Moisturize 

  • Choose a moisturizer that is free of perfumes, dyes, or lanolin. Your cancer care team will recommend an over-the-counter or prescription moisturizer. 
  • Begin moisturizing the skin as soon as you begin treatment, which can help avoid irritation. 
  • Apply the moisturizer twice daily. Do not combine moisturizers. 
  • Do not apply the moisturizer to any open wounds. 
  • Avoid using any other products on the treatment area, such as make-up, deodorant, powders, or perfumes. 

Protect Your Skin Outdoors 

  • Your skin will be particularly vulnerable to sun damage, so wear protective clothing when you go outdoors. Clothing should not be see-through when held up to the light, but it should also not be tight-fitting. 
  • Apply sunscreen. Your cancer care team will recommend or prescribe a sunscreen for you. 
  • When outside, avoid direct sun. Do not go to a tanning bed. 
  • When the temperatures are cold, it can also irritate your skin. Protect your skin with several layers of clothing and stay warm. 
  • Avoid hot tubs, where the heat and chemicals can further irritate your skin. 
  • If your skin does not currently have any reactions, you may swim in a chlorinated pool. Be sure to rinse off thoroughly afterward. If your skin currently has a reaction, such as a rash or blister, do not go into a chlorinated pool. 

Avoid Irritating Your Skin 

  • Tight-fitting clothing or synthetic materials can irritate your skin. Choose loose cotton clothing instead. 
  • Do not apply any other at-home treatments to the skin like pain patches, heating pads, ice packs, or water bottles. 
  • While your skin may itch, do not scratch it. Ask your cancer care team for a prescription to help with itchiness. 
  • Do not massage the treatment area. 
  • Protect your skin while doing chores, such as using harsh cleaners or even doing the dishes. Wear gloves or protective clothing. 

During and following treatment, communicate with your care team about your symptoms. They may be able to recommend other treatments or products that can help alleviate negative side effects. 

Caring for Your Skin After Radiation 

In the weeks following your radiation, your skin may continue to exhibit side effects like dryness, sores, or itchiness. It is important to follow the recommendations above as your skin heals. 

In the months and even years following your treatment, even as those symptoms dissipate, it is still important to care for your skin. 

  • Monitor your skin for changes. If you notice any changes, such as discoloration, a rash, or moles, you should contact your doctor. 
  • Continue to practice safe sun protection. After radiation, you are more likely to develop skin cancer, particularly at your treatment site. That’s why it’s important to continue to protect your skin with sunscreen, protective clothing, and sun hats. 

Radiation at SERO 

At SERO, our cancer care teams, including our 30 board-certified radiation oncologists, are dedicated to helping every patient navigate their cancer care as comfortably as possible. This includes helping you identify the best steps for protecting and treating your skin before, during, and after radiation. 

If at any point during your treatment you have questions about skin care or anything else, please contact a member of your cancer care team.