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 lympohedema. 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 daily.
  • Clean cuts or grazes straight away with clean water, then put an antiseptic cream over the area if you don't have an allergy to the cream. Then 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 if you don't have an allergy to the cream.
  • Avoid extremes of temperature that can dry your skin – including hot, cold or windy weather.
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing or jewellery.
  • Where possible, try to 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.
  • Avoid having injections, blood taken, or your blood pressure checked on the affected arm.
  • Wear gardening gloves and oven gloves to protect your arms from injury.
  • Avoid hot baths, saunas and steam rooms. The heat might increase the swelling. We need more research to understand more about how heat might increase swelling.

Removing hair on or near the affected area 

Be careful when removing body hair. Using an electric razor may help avoid injuring the skin. Hair removal creams can cause skin irritation and you need to check you don't have an allergy to the cream. Waxing, and sugaring can damage the skin increasing the risk of infection. So, these should be avoided. Before you try any hair removal products ask your lymphoedema specialist for advice.

Hot tubs and saunas

Be careful if you use hot tubs or saunas and use them for a short amount of time. There is some evidence the heat might affect the swelling. But more research is needed. Always check the swollen area for any changes while you use a hot tub, saunas, and steam rooms. To reduce the risk of infection avoid these if you have any open wounds or cuts in your skin.

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 lymphoedema specialist that moisturisers you like to use are suitable. Try to 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. You should usually apply your moisturiser at night after you have removed your compression garment. Your lymphoedema specialist will 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 lymphoedema specialist or doctor if you think your skin looks red or feels hot. Or you have pain in the area, a high temperature or generally feel unwell.

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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