Caring for skin and nails

The appearance of your skin and nails may be affected by cancer treatment. Your skin may become dry or oily,  sore or red, and more sensitive. 

To look after your skin, you can:

  • Avoid soap and perfumed products.
  • Gently cleanse your face, avoiding products containing alcohol.
  • Use a moisturiser at least once a day.
  • Use emollient creams to relieve itchy skin.
  • For oily skin, use a wash-off cleanser followed by oil-free moisturiser.
  • Use foundations, bronzers and green-tinted primers to control changes in skin tone.
  • Protect yourself against the sun.
  • Avoid scratching or wet-shaving your skin.

Your nails may become brittle, flaky, ridged or lined. Sometimes they may become painful or swollen. To look after your nails, you can:

  • Use nail-strengthening cream, hand cream and cuticle cream.
  • Use an emery board instead of cutting your nails.
  • Use nail varnish to hide discolouration but not if your nails are split.
  • Wear gloves when doing chores.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Don’t wear false nails.

Changes to skin during cancer treatment

Cancer treatment may affect how your skin looks and feels. This page looks at some ways of managing these effects.

Watch this selection of videos created by Boots UK to learn practical tips about managing some of the visible side effects of cancer treatment.

Depending on the type of cancer treatment you have, and how you react to it, your skin may become:

  • dry
  • more sensitive to sunlight
  • sore in some areas, such as the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet
  • redder (if you have light skin), or darker with a blue or black tinge (if you have dark skin)
  • more sensitive to some underarm deodorants, perfumes or perfumed products.

You may also develop a rash, particularly if you’re being treated with a targeted therapy.

If you develop any pain or a rash, tell your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team, as they can give you treatment that will help.

Looking after dry skin

If you have very dry skin, these tips may help:

  • Clean your body with lukewarm water and non-perfumed bath and shower oils.
  • Avoid using soap, as this will dry your skin out even more.
  • If your skin feels sensitive or you’re receiving targeted therapies as part of your treatment, avoid using perfumed or coloured skin products.
  • Avoid long, hot showers or soaking in the bath, as hot water dries out the skin.
  • Pat your skin dry with a clean, soft towel.

Try these tips for cleansing your face:

  • Use a gentle cleanser that won’t strip the moisture out of your skin. Creamy formulations could be a good option, but make sure you apply the product carefully and avoid your eyes.
  • Remove cleansers with a damp cotton wool pad or a clean, damp flannel. This will leave your skin feeling soft and clean.
  • If you’re using a toner, stay away from products that contain alcohol, as these can also dry out your skin. A skin freshener without alcohol would be more suitable.

Using moisturiser

Use a moisturiser at least once a day on your face and body if you have dry skin.

Some moisturising ingredients will help leave the skin feeling more comfortable and nourished. Look for rich and creamy moisturisers with some of the following ingredients:

  • ceramides
  • cholesterol
  • glycerin
  • hyaluronic acid
  • shea butter or cocoa butter.

Moisturisers that contain oatmeal can also be soothing for dry or sore skin.

Try tying a muslin bag filled with oatmeal over your bath tap and letting the water run through. This is a great way to make bath-time a soothing and skin-softening experience.

If your skin is very dry, it can become itchy. Using an emollient cream that contains oatmeal, menthol or 10% urea may help relieve the itchiness. Ask your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team for advice – they may prescribe you something to reduce itching.

If you’re having radiotherapy or targeted therapies, the staff at the hospital will advise you on how to care for your skin. Check with them before using any skin products.

Looking after oily skin

The following tips will help you look after your skin during cancer treatment:

  • A wash-off cleanser could be a good option if you have oily skin. Remember to work the cleanser into your skin well, before washing it off.
  • Using a soft flannel or muslin cloth can help remove the last traces of cleanser, which can make your skin feel even cleaner.
  • Be careful not to overwork your skin – avoid exfoliating products or harsh products that strip the skin of moisture.
  • A good cleanser and a light, oil-free moisturiser should help keep your skin in good condition.

If your skin is usually oily, you may notice it becomes less so during chemotherapy treatment.

Changes in your skin tone

You may notice changes in skin tone as your treatment goes on. The following tips may help.

Using foundation

If you wear foundation, you may need to change from your usual shade.

Choose a base colour that isn’t visible at your jawline. A tinted moisturiser can work well if you’re not used to wearing a lot of make-up. Or a light-coverage foundation will help even out the tone of your skin.

Applying a bronzer

Use a make-up brush to apply a bronzer lightly to your forehead, cheekbones and chin to add natural-looking contour to your face.

Start slowly when applying colour to your face – begin by adding a small amount and gently build this up. The colour should look more natural if you use a large brush to apply the bronzer.

You could speak to a Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor about other make-up options to enhance your skin tone.

Flushed skin

A green-tinted primer can help tone down rosy skin and even out the colouring on your cheeks, nose and chin. But try to use these products sparingly. When applying the primer, pat it gently into your skin – rubbing your skin could make the redness even worse.

If you have flushed skin, try using a medium-coverage foundation with sun protection. Make sure the foundation matches the areas of your face that are less red. Pat the foundation over the primer to avoid disturbing it.

Rashes or spots

If you develop a rash, always get it checked by your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team straightaway. They will know the cause and be able to give you some advice.

Some targeted therapies can cause a rash that looks very similar to acne. However, this rash isn’t caused by acne, and anti-acne products will make the problem worse. Your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team can give you treatment that will help.

General tips

Whatever type of skin you have, the tips below may help:

  • Protect yourself in the sun with minimum factor SP30 suncream with at least four or five UVA stars.
  • Avoid staying in the sun, especially during the hottest times of the day.
  • Wear a hat or scarf on your head when it’s sunny.
  • Wear loose clothes made of cotton or natural fibres.
  • Use petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline®) or a lip balm on dry or sore lips. If you’re having radiotherapy, your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team may suggest using a water-soluble lubricant, such as K-Y Jelly®, during your treatment.
  • Protect your skin from the damage caused by scratching. Keep nails short using an emery board. Clean and rub the itchy area rather than scratching it.
  • If you get a rash or itchy skin, speak to your cancer specialist who will prescribe medicines or creams.
  • Use an electric shaver instead of wet-shaving to minimise the risk of cuts. If you’ve had treatment in an area where you would normally shave, ask your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team for their advice about shaving.
  • If the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet are sore, speak to your specialist. They may need to adjust the dosage of your treatment.

'I had a lady in whose husband was going through cancer treatment and was having problems with dry skin. So I talked her through the options and recommended a moisturiser for men.'

Jay, Boots Macmillan Beauty Advisor

Changes to nails during cancer treatment

Chemotherapy or targeted therapy may make your fingernails and toenails grow more slowly or become brittle or flaky.

You may notice white lines appearing across your nails, or changes in the shape or colour of your nails. Nails may, on occasion, become painful and be lost altogether.

If your nails become painful or swollen, see your cancer nurse specialist or oncology team, as this may be due to an infection that needs treatment.

Nails should go back to normal after chemotherapy or targeted therapy ends.

What you can do

During treatment, there are a number of things you can do to manage and disguise changes to your nails:

  • Use a nail-strengthening cream.
  • Use a hand, foot and nail cream regularly.
  • Nail varnish will help minimise the appearance of discoloured nails, but don’t use nail varnish if your nails are split or sore.
  • Massaging a good cuticle cream into your cuticles will help prevent dryness, splitting and hangnails. Do not cut your cuticles.
  • Use an emery board rather than cutting your nails. This will keep them short and smooth and avoid snagging.
  • If you’re filing your nails, draw the emery board across your nail in one direction only, instead of using a sawing action. This can help prevent nails splitting further.
  • Wear gloves while doing household chores, especially the washing-up. Excessive exposure to water can lead to fungal infections of the nail bed.
  • Don’t use false nails during treatment or when nails are sore or damaged
  • Wear comfortable shoes that aren’t too tight.

Back to Changes during treatment

What might happen

Cancer treatments may cause changes in your appearance. The effects will depend on the type of treatment you’re having.

Changes to body hair

Changes to body hair are common during cancer treatment. There are ways to cope with this.