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About the skin and cancer

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This page is about how cancer and its treatment might affect the skin. There is information below on


The skin and its layers

The skin is the largest body organ and does many different things for the body. Cancer and its treatment can damage the cells of the skin and stop it doing these things properly.

The skin has 2 main layers

  • Epidermis
  • Dermis

Under the dermis is a third layer - the fat layer (hypodermis)


The top layers of the epidermis are made of dead cells that contain keratin. Keratin is tough and waxy and helps to toughen the skin so that it can protect the body. 

The epidermis is constantly changing. The top layers are continually rubbed off and new cells are made at the bottom. These gradually make their way to the surface to replace the lost cells. This takes about 35 days. 


This layer contains nerve endings, blood vessels, oil glands and sweat glands. It also contains collagen and elastin, to make the skin tough and stretchy.

The oil glands are also called sebaceous glands (pronounced seb-ay-shus). They make a substance called sebum. It rises up into the epidermis and keeps the skin moist and waterproof to protect the body.

The thickness of the epidermis and the dermis varies in different parts of the body, from about 2mm to 4mm. For example, the skin on the back is quite thick, with an epidermis and dermis of about 4mm. The skin on the face is much thinner.

Fat layer (hypodermis or subcutaneous layer)

The layer of fat under the dermis is called the subcutaneous layer. This layer helps to keep us warm and absorbs knocks and shocks. It also contains the hair follicles. Hair grows from the follicles.


What the skin does

The skin does the following things for us

  • Protects the inside of the body from damage
  • Helps to keep the body temperature more or less the same
  • Gets rid of some body waste products, through sweat
  • Protects the body from infection
  • Provides sensation so that we can feel things such as pain, hot and cold
  • Produces vitamin D

It can also repair itself and grow back when damaged.


Factors that affect the skin

The skin is affected by a number of different factors.

What we eat and drink

To keep healthy skin, we need to eat a well balanced diet. We also need to take in at least 2 litres of fluid a day (about 8 glasses). We get this fluid from food and drink. If you don’t have enough fluid, you can get dehydrated and your skin can become dry. If your skin is dry it can’t work properly. It won’t be as supple and stretchy. Smoking can make the skin dry and drinking a lot of alcohol can also dry the skin.


As we get older our skin

  • Gets thinner and less elastic
  • Is more fragile and more easily damaged
  • Is less able to deal with infections and heal after injury
  • Can be drier
  • May react to soaps and cosmetics, changes in temperature and friction


We need to move and change position so that we don’t put constant pressure on one area of the body. If we can’t move around much, we are at risk of developing sore, red areas on our skin, which can break down. These are called pressure sores.


Many different diseases can affect the skin, including cancers that start in the skin or may spread there from other parts of the body. Other less serious skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, can add to the problems caused by cancer or its treatment. If you have a skin condition, talk to your doctor about how to manage it alongside your cancer treatment.

We have detailed information about cancers that start in the skin. These are called non melanoma skin cancer and melanoma skin cancer.

Side effects of cancer treatment

Some cancer drugs can affect the skin, including chemotherapy and biological therapies. They can make the skin

  • Become dry
  • Become discoloured - usually darker
  • More sensitive to sunlight
  • Break out in rashes or spots, similar to acne

Radiotherapy can also affect your skin. The skin in the treatment area can get red and sore. The skin on the opposite side of your body from where you have treatment may also get sore because that’s where the radiotherapy beam comes out of the body. It usually starts to heal around 2 to 4 weeks after your treatment finishes.

Some people get very sore skin when they have radiotherapy. The skin may peel badly or leak fluid. If this happens to you, your doctor will stop your treatment for a while to let your skin recover. They may also give you creams to help the skin heal.

After treatment, skin in the radiotherapy area will be more sensitive to the sun. There is information about caring for your skin during radiotherapy in the treatment section.

There is detailed information about how cancer drugs affect the skin in the cancer treatment section.

The environment around us

If the environment you are in is hot or cold it can have an affect on your skin. Both can make your skin dry. If it is hot you may sweat more, and this can also have an impact if your skin is more delicate.

How you care for your skin

Keeping your skin clean, dry and moisturised will help to keep it healthy. What you need to do may change depending on the factors above.  

This section is about general cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. If you are worried about skin cancer symptoms, go to the skin cancer symptoms page and the symptoms of melanoma skin cancer page.

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Updated: 11 May 2016