After a breast cancer diagnosis skincare is not really on the agenda as your oncology team focus on your treatment plan.
We all know about the more common side effects of cancer treatment but perhaps less well known are the effects on skin. The one and only mention of skincare during my treatment was a quick statement by one of the nurses when she said ‘your skin might be more sensitive than usual.’ Other than that there was no advice or further information provided.
Having said that, the hospital nurses and doctors do a truly outstanding job and I shall be forever thankful for their support and expertise throughout the course of my treatment.
I have always been a huge fan of natural skincare and Anita Roddick; founder of The Body Shop, was a real inspiration for me when I was growing up. My passion was really brought to the fore when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 32 and I decided that I wanted to have more control of what I use on my skin.
Having always taken good skin for granted the effects of cancer treatment on my skin were not something I was prepared for. My main focus was on getting better and everything else was secondary.
There are a number of things you can do to counteract the effects on your skin and it’s great to start by understanding why these effects might happen in the first place.
Why Is Your Skin More Vulnerable?
Your skin can be damaged by a number of cancer treatments. Chemotherapy targets all your cells including healthy ones and reduces the amount of oil your glands secrete. As skin is the largest organ in your body the effects are more visible. Radiotherapy can also affect the area that is treated and various medications may also have an adverse effect on the skin. In addition, hormone therapy can have a big impact on the skin as the aim of this treatment is to reduce oestrogen levels which is the hormone that keeps skin looking young and fresh.
What Can You Do About It?
If you understand what might happen to your skin, then you can be more prepared to deal with it. If you have a better understanding of the ingredients in your skincare products, you can make more informed decisions about the products that are right for you.
Many skincare products include synthetic chemicals that are known to be Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (or EDCs for short). These can lead to elevated levels of oestrogen, the hormone that fuels the majority of breast cancers. Some of the most common EDCs in skincare products include parabens, phthalates and triclosan. For more information on EDCs including easy ways to reduce your exposure read my previous blog post here.
As your skin may be more sensitive you will need to carefully consider the ingredients in the products that you use. It may not be possible for you to continue using some of your favourite products. Products with as few ingredients as possible are the way to go as you have much less chance of irritation. Avoid products with fragrance as they can trigger a reaction and the chances are that your treatment can make you less able to tolerate fragrances anyway. Avoid harsh surfactants and alcohol for skin cleansing as these can dry your skin out making it more vulnerable.
As well as being more sensitive generally your skin will be much more sensitive to sun damage. Take extra care during and after treatment and use a high factor sunscreen. Look for the ingredient non-nano zinc oxide because it is safe and it provides full spectrum UV protection. There are a number of ingredients in suncreens that you might like to avoid that are listed in my blog here.
One of the most common effects of cancer treatment is dry skin. Moisturise with an oil to nourish your skin. Using oils can also improve skin tolerance. The trend for using oils has increased enormously in recent years and my first oil love was argan oil. Find an oil that works for you and you will be truly amazed at how effective they are. The great thing about oils is that they are multitaskers so you can use them on hair, nails etc. Read more about oils here in my blog on five face oils for glowing skin.
You may not have the energy to have your usual daily shower and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Review the products that you normally use in the shower and look for gentle alternatives if you need to. Many products contain sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) which is a known skin irritant and much too harsh when your skin is vulnerable so choose products that don’t contain this ingredient.
One of the best and most simple treatments I have found for dry hands (and feet) is pure coconut oil. For baby soft skin opt for virgin coconut oil which has no additives. It melts on contact with your skin and hydrates and soothes dry, rough hands.
Nails can also be affected by treatment and can become dry and brittle and split or break more easily. The best thing you can do is keep them short and use a nail oil to condition nails and soften cuticles.
Your lips can become very dry and sore and therefore more prone to cracking. The skin on your lips is thinner than elsewhere on your body so they are much more vulnerable. Use a natural balm regularly and if you are a regular lipstick wearer take a break from this as much as you can because the colours (even natural ones) can dry your lips out.
Your mouth can become dry and sore. I used a simple salt mouth wash to soothe and heal any sores. Just mix half a teaspoon of salt with a glass of warm water and use when required. Opt for a natural toothpaste without SLS which is the ingredient that makes toothpaste foam as it can make your mouth even drier. Choose a toothpaste that contains natural betaine (derived from sugar beets) which boosts saliva production and helps combat dry mouth. Eating soft foods like soup and smoothies will help enormously too when you do have an appetite.
Hair loss is one of the most difficult side effects of cancer treatment. But it also has benefits as it means a break from plucking, shaving and waxing! If you choose to wear a wig your scalp may need extra care and attention. It can get dry and as a result itchy so this is where your multitasking oil comes in handy to deeply condition your scalp. You don’t really need to actively wash your scalp. I only ever rinsed my scalp and it’s the one time in my life when I didn't suffer from psoriasis which I put down to giving my skin a break from shampoo.
Deodorant is something you will not be able to use for quite a while after surgery. Your armpits may be sore if you have had lymph nodes removed and you will need to allow time to heal. Roll ons and sticks are better once you are able to start using a deodorant again or you may even find that you no longer need to use one once your body becomes accustomed to going without. If not there are an abundance of effective and very nice natural deodorants available now.
Find a combination of skincare products that works for you and don’t forget that what you put in your body is just as important for your skin as what you put on it.
Above all else be kind to yourself and take one day at a time!