Skin Care During Radiation Therapy

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

During each treatment, radiation is aimed at an area of your body called the “treatment field.” Radiation passes through the skin of the treatment field (front to back). It is likely that there will be some changes to the skin that will begin to happen during the second week of treatment. You may find that your skin is red, irritated, peeling, tanned, or looks sunburned. Skin reaction may be greater in people who have fair skin. There are some things you can do to protect your skin:

  • Wash with lukewarm water and gently pat the skin dry. If you need to use soap, use a mild one.
  • Your radiation care team may tell you not to apply any deodorant, perfume, cologne, aftershave, lotion, or powder to the skin in the treatment field. These things may contain metals that were thought to increase the reaction to the skin. However, recent research has shown that this is not the case and fewer providers are recommending this practice.
  • Your healthcare provider may order certain bland ointments for dryness and itching. If your healthcare provider has ordered an ointment, ask if you can apply it before your treatment.
  • Do not shave the hair in the treatment field. If you must shave, use an electric razor.
  • Do not rub or scratch the skin. Keep your nails short.
  • Do not use adhesive (sticky) tape or band-aids on the skin in the treatment field.
  • Do not wear tight-fitting clothes. Wear soft fabrics such as cotton. Do not use harsh laundry detergents.
  • Do not swim in saltwater or chlorinated pools while having treatment..
  • Do not use hot water bottles, ice bags, heating pads, or heating lights on the skin in the area being treated.
  • Practice sun safety, as exposure to the sun can cause more skin damage. Your best protection is to stay in the shade and wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves, pants, and a hat when outdoors. Avoid the sun during peak hours (10am to 2pm). If you are outside in the sun, wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 (including the treatment area, if your care team tells you it is ok to do so).  Follow these tips in the winter months also!
  • Folds of skin are more likely to be irritated. Also, remember to check the exit site (the other side of your body).

Any skin reaction may continue to get worse during treatment, until about seven days after your last treatment, and then it will begin to go away. The skin will always be a little thinner and dryer in the area of the treatment. It may have a higher risk of infection and breakdown. Protect it with sunscreen in the summer and use a thick ointment or lotion to keep that area moisturized. 

References

National Cancer Institute website. Radiation therapy and you: support for people with cancer. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiationttherapy.pdf. Updated October 2016. Accessed August 6, 2020. 

National Institutes of Health: U.S. National Library of Science. (2020). Radiation therapy- Skin care. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000735.htm 

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