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Radiotherapy and your skin

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This page tells you about how to care for your skin during and after radiotherapy. There is information about

 

Effects of radiotherapy on the skin

Radiotherapy can make the skin go red or darker in the treatment area. Some people have no skin problems at all but others can have very sore skin. Whether or not you have a skin reaction depends on your own type of skin and the area being treated.

If you get a skin reaction it will be red (or darker in dark skinned people). It can also be sore, like a sunburn. It won't happen straight away but develops gradually after several sessions. Your radiographer looks out for these reactions. But you should also let them know if you feel any soreness. 

If the skin gets very sore it may peel and blisters may form in the treatment area. Skin reactions usually settle down two to four weeks after your treatment finishes.

You may also get redness or darkening on the other side of your body to the treatment area. For example, you may have skin changes on your back if the front of the chest is being treated. This is because the skin can be affected in the area where the radiotherapy beam leaves the body (the radiotherapy exit site). If the exit site skin becomes red or sore tell the radiotherapy unit staff. If the treatment areas get very sore your doctor may need to delay the radiotherapy for a while so the skin can recover.

 

Skin care during radiotherapy

Advice about skin care varies from one hospital to another. It is best to follow the instructions of your own treatment unit. The advice applies only to the treatment area or exit site area – you can treat the rest of your skin normally. 

Usually the radiotherapy staff advise you to gently wash the area each day with mild, unperfumed soap and warm or cool water. You then gently pat the skin dry with a soft towel. Rubbing the skin can make it sore.

Don't use creams or dressings on the treatment area unless they are prescribed by your specialist or radiographer. Don't use talcum powder because this can contain tiny metal particles that can make the soreness worse after radiotherapy. 

If the tumour is affecting your skin, your nurses may put on special dressings after your treatment. Don't use sticky (adhesive) tape or dressings in the treatment area.

Other skin care tips when washing and shaving include

  • Don't rub the area too hard because this can make it sore
  • Don't use perfume or perfumed soaps, talcs or lotions
  • You can use unperfumed deodorant unless it irritates the skin
  • Try baby soap or liquid baby wash but check with the radiotherapy staff in your department first
  • Men having radiotherapy to the head and neck should use an electric razor instead of wet shaving
 

Clothing during radiotherapy

During radiotherapy and for a while afterwards your skin may be sensitive. You may find it more comfortable to

  • Wear loose fitting clothes
  • Use clothes made of natural fibres
  • Avoid tight collars and ties if you've had radiotherapy to your neck
  • Avoid shoulder and bra straps – go without a bra, wear a crop top instead, or try a sports bra a size bigger than usual
 

Going outdoors

The treated area of skin is sensitive so try to avoid strong sun or cold winds.

As always, when exposed to the sun you should

  • Use a high factor sunscreen
  • Wear a hat and long sleeved shirts

If you are having radiotherapy to the head or neck you can try wearing a hat or a dense weave silk or cotton scarf when you go outside. You can also try putting up the collar on your shirt or jacket.

 

Swimming

If you like to swim, ask your radiotherapy specialist or radiographer about this. If you swim in chlorinated water it may cause irritation in the treatment area. Some doctors say it is OK to swim but others prefer you not to swim until your treatment is finished. If you have a bad skin reaction with broken skin, which is rare, you should not swim until it is healed.

 

Long term side effects

You may find that the treatment area looks permanently tanned after your treatment has finished. This is a long term side effect but won't harm you. You can use make up to camouflage it if you like.

Later, you may appear to have very tiny broken veins in the treated area. This is a long term side effect of radiotherapy. It is called telangiectasia. Tiny veins grow in the treatment area and may show on the surface of your skin. You can cover this with camouflage make up.

 

More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section.

There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 2 May 2014