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Ovarian Cancer Health Center

Caring for Your Skin, Hair, and Nails During Chemotherapy

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Skin Care During Chemotherapy continued...

Chemotherapy patients don’t need to avoid the sun. Just be smart about sun exposure. Use a broad-brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing, and an SPF of 30 reapplied every two hours if you’re outside, more if you are swimming or sweating.

Itching is also common and can stem from multiple causes: the chemotherapy drug, a patient’s naturally dry skin (particularly in people over 50), or as a symptom of the cancer itself.

While many patients aim for itch relief with over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams, they’re often too weak to be effective, says Lacouture. Instead, doctors can treat itching with steroids or anesthetic medications applied to the skin. If itching interferes with sleep, oral medications might work.   

Skin can also go through color changes during chemotherapy, particularly with breast or colon cancer treatment. Sometimes, the hands or face are affected, which can make a patient feel self-conscious. If this happens there are bleaching creams and exfoliants containing salicylic acid that can be tried, Lacouture says. According to Ades, newer chemo drugs can also cause rashes.  

Check with your doctor but, as long as there are no open sores on your skin, swimming is fine for chemo patients, Lacouture says. However, hot tubs aren’t a good idea. They can cause more blood flow to the skin, which can lead to greater blood flow to areas of inflammation. “There’s no study that a hot tub will make it worse, but we tend to err on the cautious side,” he says.

Hair Care During Chemotherapy

Why do some chemotherapy patients lose their hair, not just on the scalp, but also on their eyebrows, eyelashes, and the rest of their bodies?

“Many of the drugs work by attacking the rapidly dividing cells in the body, and tumor cells or cancer cells are rapidly dividing cells,” Ades says. “But there are normal cells in the body that are also rapidly dividing, and the chemotherapy drugs affect those normal cells as well, which gives us side effects.” Because hair follicles divide fast, they’re also susceptible.

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