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Skin Care and Radiation Therapy

Like any cancer treatment, radiation therapy can cause side effects. Skin changes, including redness, peeling, and itching, are some of the most common.

Changes to the skin during radiation therapy generally happen gradually. During the second or third week of treatment, dryness, tanning, itching, or redness may occur. Hair loss may occur in the area being treated, and skin may be sensitive or sore. These changes are normal. The skin should heal quickly after treatment is over.

It is important to take special care of the skin during radiation therapy. Treated skin can be easily injured and needs protection. Talk to the care team about any skin changes that occur.

Keeping skin clean during radiation

Keeping the skin clean is particularly important during radiation therapy, but care is needed to avoid skin irritation.

  • Showers are generally preferred over baths when possible.
  • Use warm water. Avoid hot water.
  • Wash with mild, pH balanced soap like Dove® or Basis®. Use a mild shampoo such as baby shampoo. Stay away from harsh soaps or any soap that is not pH balanced or neutral. Avoid scented soaps.
  • Wash skin gently, rinse well, and pat dry. Don’t rub or scrub the area.
  • Do not shave the treatment area.
  • Don’t use deodorants or antiperspirants if receiving radiation treatments to the underarms.
  • Do not remove the special marks on the skin until after the last treatment.  

Moisturizing during radiation

If skin becomes dry or itchy, the doctor or nurse may order a special moisturizer to care for skin.

  • Only use moisturizers ordered by the care team.
  • Don’t use moisturizers within one hour after a radiation treatment.
  • Don’t use greasy or oily lotion, cream, or salve in the treatment area.
  • Avoid scratching the skin in the treated area. It could increase the chance of infection.

What to wear during radiation

Clothing can cause skin irritation during radiation therapy.

  • Wear soft, loose clothing. Avoid tight clothes in the area being treated.
  • Try to keep the treated area uncovered as much as possible.
  • Don’t wear hats if receiving radiation treatments to the head.
  • Wash clothes with a mild, fragrance free laundry detergent.

Sun protection during and after radiation

During and after radiation therapy, skin is more sensitive to the sun.

  • Protect the treated area from the sun. Keep skin covered if outdoors for more than 15 minutes.
  • Avoid the sun during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Use a PABA-free sunblock with an SPF of 30 or higher. Wash sunscreen off before radiation treatments.

Other reminders:

  • Check with the care team before using anything on the skin in the treatment area. Products can cause irritation and possibly affect radiation dose.
  • Ask the care team whether it is ok to swim in a swimming pool. Rinse off well after swimming.
  • Do not expose the treatment area to extreme heat or cold. Avoid heat treatments, hot tubs, heating pads, high temperature blow dryers, and ice packs.
  • Avoid putting bandages or tape on treated skin.

Caring for the skin after radiation therapy

Skin care should continue even after the final radiation therapy treatment.

  • Don’t scrub the special marks on the skin. The tattoo marks will gradually fade away after treatment. Putting lotion on them may help remove them more quickly.
  • Lifelong sun safety is important for survivors treated with radiation. Always protect skin from the sun. Use a sunscreen with SPF of 30 or higher, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun as much as possible.

Discuss any questions or concerns about caring for the skin during radiation therapy with the cancer care team Watch for skin changes, especially signs of infection. Let the care team know if there is an increase in pain or swelling, fever, blisters, or new sores.

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Reviewed: June 2018