Coping with Skin Changes during Treatment for Cancer

Having to undergo treatment for cancer can be distressing. If chemotherapy, radiotherapy and medication use then begin to impact on your physical appearance, it is easy to become depressed and self-conscious at a time when you really need to be feeling as positive as possible.

Look Good...Feel Better is a non-profit group. Affiliate members are now found throughout the world. The groups provide trained and certified experts who run workshops on how best to cope with the physical changes that are taking place. Skin and hair care are covered and volunteers provide help, support and some products to help you look your best at this difficult time.

A common side-effect of cancer treatment is dry or sensitive skin. Treat your skin as gently as possible. Cleanse twice a day using lukewarm water and a gentle cleanser or mild soap and a non-stimulating (alcohol free) toner.

You may need a richer moisturiser than normal, perhaps a cream rather than a lotion. Use as often as necessary to hydrate the skin and consider keeping a travel pack in your handbag. Add eye cream to your regime to counteract dark circles, puffiness and dryness.

Cold Cream(92568)Credit: Wikimedia

Moisturiser should have a SPF factor of 15+. Use plenty of sunscreen whenever you go out in the open. Limit exposure to the sun to the absolute minimum while undergoing treatment.

During chemotherapy, only stay in the sun a few minutes at a time. Do not use any hormonal-type creams such as products with hydrocortisone.

If you are undergoing radiation, check with your doctor before using any creams, deodorants or lotions on the treated area. Wash treated areas with warm water and pat to dry. Should you notice any redness, puffiness or other signs of infection, consult your doctor. If the area is itchy, sprinkle with a little cornflour (cornstarch) and avoid scratching. Don’t shave treated areas or apply heat or ice.


Concealers can be used to help hide changes in skin pigmentation which occur during cancer treatment. Dark circles and other discolouration can be minimised by applying concealer under your foundation. Choose a stick or cream concealer to avoid further drying of the skin.


Good quality pink-based concealers will counteract sallowness and a green-based concealer will counteract redness. Dot concealer where needed and use the fingertips to smooth in.

If you don’t normally wear foundation, you may prefer a tinted moisturiser. Choose a non-drying foundation and one that disappears into your skin. Dot on the forehead, chin, nose and cheeks and blend in using a clean sponge or fingertips. A foundation brush also works well. Oilier type skins can be dusted with a translucent or light-coloured loose powder . This will set your make up and help control shine. Pressed powder can be used for touch-ups during the day. If your skin is dry, there is no need to use powder.

Blush will add a natural healthy glow to your skin. Choose one that complements your skin tone and apply in a sweep over the cheekbones and towards the ear. A brown-toned blush or bronzer applied below the cheekbone will create a contour giving the illusion of less puffiness.

Eyebrows can be drawn on. While this may seem difficult at first, it becomes easier with practice. Using an eyebrow pencil which is much the same colour as your hair, place dots on the eyebrow bone directly above the inner and outer corners of the eye. These dots mark the start of the eyebrow line and the highest point of the arch. To ascertain where the brow should end, place a pencil diagonally from the bottom of the nose to the outer corner of the eye and again make a dot on the browbone. This marks the end of the eyebrow and should be slightly higher than the inner corner. Use light, feathery strokes to connect the dots, tapering the shape towards the endpoint. Gently blend and soften the lines with an eyebrow brush. You may prefer to use a stencil but avoid the peel-and-stick type. Any foreign substances that can be avoided should be.

By highlighting your eyes, attention can be drawn away from skin changes. Complementary tones will add warmth and colour. Apply the lightest shade from the lash line to just below the arch of the brow. Use the main colour over the eyelid and use a darker colour in the crease of the eyelid to emphasise the shape of your eye. Then blend the colours gently with the fingertips.

Use a liquid liner for a more definite effect or a pencil for a softer effect. Draw a thin line along the upper lash line and, if you desire, draw a line under the lower lashes. Avoid the inner eye but join the lines at the outer corner of the eye. While you are having treatment, it is best not to use permanent tattoo ink as eyeliner because of the risk of infection.

Mascara will make thinning lashes appear more natural. Don’t pump the wan in the tube as this could introduce bacteria. It is best not to wash the wand in water or to dilute the product. Use a gentle eye make-up remover to remove your mascara and replace every three months. Check with your doctor before using false eyelashes as the glue may be too harsh for sensitive skin.

Use a lip liner if you wish. This will add greater definition and will prevent your lipstick from feathering. Apply from the centre of the lips towards the corners and blend in gently. It is good to have a lipstick in a natural lip colour for the days when you feel you need a bit of colour as well as having a ‘proper’ lipstick in a darker/brighter shade. A creamy or moisturised lipstick will be best on dry lips and you might like to use a balm or conditioner on your lips as common practice to counteract dryness and flakiness.

and the workshops teach the best methods of doing this. Thinning eyelashes will look better with the addition of mascara. With the loss of eyelashes, following the eyelash line with an eyeliner pencil will create an illusion of eyelashes.

Skin Hygiene

The immune system is at a low ebb while undergoing treatment for cancer so take great care to avoid infection from outside sources.

SoapCredit: By David Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Always wash your hands before applying skin preparations, don’t share make-up brushes, applicators or pads. Always test new cosmetics and test on the hands rather than on the face. Replace caps and lids tightly. Use throwaway tissues, sponges and pads to lessen the risk of infection.

During treatment for cancer, your nails may become brittle, grooved and/or sensitive. They may even lift from the nail bed. Nails and nail beds may change colour. It is best to keep nails short during treatment. Wear gloves while washing dishes and try not to have your hands in water for long periods. This will help avoid fungal problems. Tell your doctor if the nails lift from the beds or if there is any sign of infection or inflammation. This may manifest itself by the nails becoming darker. Do not file any streaks or spots.

Use an oily polish remover, push back the cuticles. Olive oil, moisturiser or cuticle cream will counteract splitting and dryness. Avoid hand creams containing alpha hydroxy or beta hydroxyl acids. Avoid polish which has a formaldehyde component. Choose a light shade of polish and add a top coat. This will lengthen the life of the polish. Don't use false nails during chemotherapy.

If you want to have a professional manicure, you might want to consider talking your own sterilised equipment.