Caring for your skin when you have lymphoedema

Caring for your skin is important when you have swelling (lymphoedema). There are several things you can do to help you care for and protect your skin.

Why you need to care for your skin

You need to look after your skin if you have swelling caused by a build up of lymph fluid (lymphoedema). Protecting your skin helps to reduce the risk of an injury or infection. These can make the swelling worse. This is because an injury or infection can cause more damage to the lymphatic system. 

You are at risk of an infection called cellulitis if you have lymphoedema or are at risk of developing lymphedema. Keeping your skin healthy, unbroken, and well moisturised helps to prevent this. 

Looking after your skin

You can do a number of things to help protect your skin and lower your risk of infection or injury:

  • Keep your skin clean and dry. Wash daily paying attention to skin creases, skin folds, and between your fingers and toes.
  • Avoid soaps that dry the skin. Using a soap substitute, such as aqueous cream may help.
  • Moisturise your skin at least once a day.
  • Clean cuts or grazes straight away with clean water, then put an antiseptic cream on and cover the area.
  • Protect your skin from the sun by wearing a high factor sun cream and cover up with clothes.
  • Use an insect repellent if you're bitten or stung, try not to scratch and use antihistamine cream.
  • Avoid hot baths, saunas and steam rooms because this can increase swelling.
  • Avoid extremes of temperature that can dry your skin – including hot, cold or windy weather.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing or jewellery.
  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time if you have leg swelling.
  • Keep your nails short and clean.
  • Wear correctly fitting supportive shoes if you have lymphoedema in the legs.
  • You should try to avoid having injections, blood taken, or your blood pressure checked on the affected arm.
  • Be careful when removing body hair. Using an electric razor or hair removal cream may help avoid injuring the skin (do test the cream first on another part of your body). You can also ask your specialist nurse if you are not sure what to use.
  • Wear gardening gloves and oven gloves to protect your arms from injury.

Moisturising your skin

To keep your skin moist, you need to use a moisturiser (emollient). They help to stop your skin losing water. They do this by creating a protective layer. 

There are different types of emollients, including bath oils, soap substitutes, and moisturisers. Check with your nurse that any moisturisers you like to use are suitable. And avoid perfumed body lotions because they can dry your skin and cause skin irritation.

You need to moisturise your skin every day. How you do this and what you use depends on the condition of your skin. Your specialist nurse will talk to you and explain the best way for you to help protect your skin.  

When applying your moisturiser always check for any signs of an infection or injury. Contact your specialist if you think your skin looks red or feels hot. Or you have pain in the area, a high temperature or generally feel unwell. 

After applying the moisturiser wait about 30 minutes or long enough for the moisturiser to dry before putting your compression garment on. 

Support for you

Lymphoedema can also affect you emotionally. You can get help and support with this, so ask for help from your treatment team if you need it.

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (10th edition)
    S Lister, J Hofland and H Grafton 
    Wiley Blackwell, 2020

  • Early and locally advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2018 updated: April 2023

  • All-Ireland Lymphoedema PDF Guidelines 2022 for the Diagnosis, Assessment and Management of Lymphoedema

Last reviewed: 
21 Apr 2023
Next review due: 
21 Apr 2026

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