Caring for your skin when you have lymphoedema

Caring for your skin is important when you have swelling (lymphoedema). You can do several things to protect the 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). Any injury or infection can make the swelling worse. 

This is because injury or infection can cause more damage to the lymphatic system in the area.

You might need to see a doctor who specialises in skin conditions (a dermatologist) if you have eczema or psoriasis. Any skin breaks can make you more likely to get an infection. 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 – cleanse daily using a soap substitute, such as aqueous cream, Oilatum or Neutrogena soap bars or an E45 wash.
  • 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 or cover up with clothes.
  • Use an insect repellent containing at least 50% DEET– 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.
  • Don’t wear tight clothing or jewellery.
  • Avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time if you have leg swelling.
  • Don't have injections, blood taken, or your blood pressure checked on the affected arm.

Moisturising your skin

To keep your skin moist, you need to use a moisturiser (emollient). Emollients 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. You can get Diprobase and E45 from your chemist. Check with your nurse that any moisturisers you like to use are suitable. Avoid perfumed body lotions because they can dry your skin.

You need to moisturise your skin every day. How you do this and what you use depends on the condition of your skin. Apply moisturising cream with downward strokes. This way cream will not clog your hair follicles. 

How to moisturise different types of skin

If your skin is in good condition, you need to use a moisturiser that you can apply easily. This can be a cream or a lotion. It will help to keep your skin hydrated.

If your skin is dry and flaky, you need to moisturise more often or use a moisturiser that is thicker and greasier. This helps to stop further loss of moisture.

If your skin has become scaly, you need to wash it with a moisturising soap substitute. Moisturise afterwards with a thicker, greasy moisturiser. This helps to soften the scaly areas so that you can remove them easily. 

You might need to put the cream on twice a day. It helps to put it on before you go to bed at night so that it has time to absorb overnight. Clean and moisturise your skin in the morning. After that, put on your compression garment.

Last reviewed: 
21 Aug 2019
  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    Editors: Lisa Dougherty and Sara Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Lymphoedema Care
    Woods, M
    Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

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