Nail and Skin Care

Author: Christina Bach, LCSW, MBE, OSW-C
Content Contributor: Karen Arnold-Korzeniowski, BSN, RN and Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 15, 2024

During cancer therapy, you may notice changes in your skin and/or nails. These changes vary based on the type and dose of therapy you are receiving.

What nail and skin changes can happen during cancer treatment?

Some skin changes with radiation therapy include redness, peeling, thin or fragile skin, and/or increased sensitivity to sunlight. If you are receiving chemotherapy, you may notice changes in skin tone or pigmentation (color), very dry skin, rashes, redness, peeling, and/or increased sensitivity to sunlight. If you have any of these problems, be sure to show them to your oncology healthcare team. They can be signs of reactions to some medications and you may need a lower dose of chemotherapy or radiation.

Your fingernails and toenails may become discolored, weak, break, lift off, or develop ridges (which will grow out over time). For most people, the nail changes will be short-term and will grow back to normal after some time. It may take about 6 months after treatment is stopped for nails to return to their prior condition.

Tips for caring for your skin:

  • Wash with warm water and mild, unscented soap.
  • You can use your normal deodorant. If a product appears to irritate your skin, stop using it and try another brand. You may benefit from a "non-allergenic" product.
  • Use an electric razor for shaving to avoid cuts.
  • Avoid tight clothing or irritating fabrics, such as wool, that may rub your skin.
  • Protect your skin from sunlight. Use SPF 30 or higher, even on overcast days. Wear a hat and long-sleeved clothing to cover exposed skin and/or carry an umbrella when out during peak sun hours.
  • Protect your skin from extreme cold or heat.

Dry skin is a common side effect. Tips for dealing with dry skin include:

  • Use an emollient, which is a type of cream that softens skin and moisturizes. Creams tend to be more effective than lotions. Some examples are Eucerin®, Aquaphor®, Nivea®, and Cetaphil®.
  • Avoid perfumed or scented lotions, as these can be irritating.
  • Moisturize your skin after your shower or bath when the skin is still damp.
  • Don't forget to moisturize your lips! Try an eye or face cream to moisten the sensitive skin on your face.
  • Drink 8-10 glasses of non-alcoholic fluid a day.

Here are some tips for dealing with nail changes:

  • Avoid cutting cuticles because it can cause an infection. Use a cuticle cream instead. If you need to cut your cuticle, be sure to clean the clipper before using it.
  • Artificial fingernails can hold bacteria and lead to infections, so you should not use them.
  • Nails absorb water and expand, then contract as they dry out. The more they expand and contract, the weaker they become, so wear gloves to protect your nails when doing housework or gardening.
  • Keep your hands moisturized and your nails cut short.
  • You may want to use nail polish to give your nails extra strength and cover imperfections.
  • Soaking your nails in or massaging the nail with oil, such as vegetable or olive, helps replace moisture lost from water exposure. These natural oils lack the alcohol-containing fragrance often found in commercial nail products.
  • If your nails break or lift off, try to keep them clean and protected. Covering the nail with a band-aid can protect it from trauma. Clean with soap and warm water and apply an antibiotic ointment twice a day.
  • If the nail or nail bed appears infected (redness, swelling, warm to the touch), tell your healthcare team.

If you are having issues with your skin or nails, you should talk to your provider. Your provider can help you to figure out how to manage these issues.

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