All, Handling Radiotherapy, Managing side effects, Skin Care & Beauty

How to look after your skin during radiotherapy

natural skincare

The most obvious side effect of radiotherapy (also known as radiation therapy depending on where you live in the world) is the impact on your skin, with radiotherapy burn being very similar to severe sunburn. However, there are natural remedies and ways to protect your skin during radiotherapy.

Things to avoid during radiotherapy

I hate to start with the negatives, but there are some things you shouldn’t do when going through radiotherapy. So let’s begin with things that you should try to avoid whilst undergoing radiation treatment.

  • Baths – whilst you undertake radiotherapy and whilst your skin is healing, you should avoid taking hot baths which can irritate redness and soreness. If a bath is your only option, try to keep it relatively cool, short and keep the affected area out of the hot water
  • Sun – exposure to the sun can make skin irritation worse. You should protect the skin with a high SPF and keep affected skin out of the sun by covering up.
  • Swimming – the chemicals in the water could further irritate skin and as such should be avoided until your skin is healed
  • Harsh chemicals – for all of the reasons given above. Your skin should be treated the way you would a newborn, which means keep things gentle and PH neutral
  • Deodorant if being treated for breast cancer – this is a bit of a weird one because advice between different hospitals varies greatly. Some say to avoid completely, others say to avoid spray deodorant, others don’t mention it. I took the view of the above point, used a cream-based natural deodorant (watch out for bicarb of soda based ones which can be really drying and make your skin react) and used very sparingly, and was fine. Listen to the advice of your medical team and use your own judgement. I used the Tropic Skin Care Feel Fresh deodorant which is really creamy, gentle, and ultra-moisturising, and had no problems.
How to look after your skin during radiotherapy
The impact of radiotherapy on skin is very much like a bad sunburn, and can be treated in a similar way

Things to help your skin during radiotherapy

Now we’ve got the “can’ts” out of the way, let’s chat about what you can do to help. You have to consider that you skin is (sorry to put this so brutally) fried from the inside out. This isn’t meant to scare you, it’s a good thing, because the whole point is that it zaps those cancer cells in the process. But it can be really, really painful – tender and raw. To help keep this to a minimum you need to treat your skin like it is your most valued possession for a little while.

The main key is to moisturise, moisturise and then moisturise some more. I would also strongly recommend keeping it as pure and natural as you can at this time, especially when your skin is so sensitive. This is the regime that I followed, and not only did it keep the burn to a minimum, but it also healed really quickly afterwards. You will need:

  • Calendula Oil – extracted from marigold flowers, it is antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antibacterial, making it excellent for healing skin in distress
  • Coconut Oil – has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties that make it perfect for the skin. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid and other medium-chain fatty acids. It is light and non-greasy. Ideally the cocnut oil you use should be virgin, unrefined, and free of any fillers or additives. You can use fractionated (which is liquid at room temperature) or solid coconut oil.
  • Organic Lavender Essential Oil – naturally moisturises skin, and is an excellent anti-inflammatory making it great for angry, red skin. Is also naturally soothing, antibacterial, antiseptic and an all-round healing powerhouse.
  • Aloe Vera Gel – well-known for its cooling and healing properties.
    It is anti-inflammatory, a powerful antioxident and can reduce  blistering and itchiness while helping the skin to heal more rapidly
  • Tamanu Balm/Oil
  • White cabbage leaves
  • Manuka Honey

One-two weeks before starting radiotherapy

Add the lavender oil to the coconut oil – I tend to work with a 5% dilution rate which is roughly 10 drops of essential oil to 2 teaspoons of oil. If you are using this on babies or children I would reduce this down to about 2 drops per teaspoon.

Apply to generously to the area that will be affected once per day. This will ensure that your skin is in good condition before you even begin radiotherapy.

N.B. Coconut oil makes an excellent body moisturiser for day to day use, whether going through radiotherapy or not.

Once radiotherapy begins

Depending on what time your radiotherapy appointment is will depend on when you do the following. If you have a morning appointment, I would recommend doing this full regime after radiotherapy and then again in the evening before bed. If you have an afternoon appointment, then do it once first thing (at least 3 hours before your appointment), and then again a couple of hours after. Don’t be shy with the application – slap it all on generously for maximum benefits!

Start by applying pure calendula oil to the affected area – bear in mind you may want to apply to the back of the body in the affected area as well as front. e.g. because my radiotherapy was to my breast I did my whole chest area – up to my collar bones, into my armpit and also the top of my back.

Once the calendula oil has sunk in a bit, then apply your coconut oil/lavender mixture. Once this has absorbed, finish off with an application of aloe vera gel.

Do this twice a day as per the instructions above

Water – I cannot stress how important it is to keep hydrated whilst having radiotherapy, for your insides as well as your outsides. I found that unless I drank at least 3 litres of water a day, I would get cracking headaches. Keeping up the water intake will help with your skin too.

Tamanu oil/balm – apply immediately after radiotherapy, and then throughout the day (although again, never just before)

Let the air circulate to the affected area as much as possible, to help avoid infection. I was told to go bra-free as much as possible, which if I had small boobs would have been excellent advice.

However, I found that being of the “bigger-boobed” variety, the only problems I had with my skin were on my underboob, where I ended up with something akin to a friction burn and which brought a lot of pain and many tears. As soon as I started wearing a supersoft, long-line, non-wired bra which gave just a bit of lift and stopped the rub (fellow boobettes will know what I’m saying here) my skin healed beautifully!

Keeping the skin clean during radiotherapy

I’ve already said about steering clear of baths if possible during radiotherapy, but keeping the skin clean is really important. Regular soaps and body washes can contain chemicals and ingredients that can dry or irritate the skin at this time. So it is best to either just use water, or a very gentle PH neutral body wash. I recommend the Tropic Skin Care body wash as one that is really gentle, smells amazing, is PH Neutral and made with pure, natural ingredients.

Make sure that you splash/pat the skin with your hands rather than any kind of rubbing and when you are done, pat dry very carefully and gently. Avoid body scrubs or even using a flannel on the affected area until it is healed.

After radiotherapy

Continue with the moisturings regime until a few weeks after you finish or until the skin is completely healed.

Don’t be surprised if the skin peels a week or two post-treatment – the day my nipple peeled was a weird one, that is for sure! This said, the regime above should keep peeling to a minimum so just keep at it, until any peeling finishes.

Bear in mind, that the affected area will be highly prone to sunburn for several months afterwards. If you are planning a post-treatment holiday, or miracle of miracles we get enough sun in the UK to make you want to strip off, then make sure you use a high factor sunscreen, and/or cover up the affected area.

What to do if the skin breaks down

The above regime should keep this to a minimum, and there are a lot of naturally antibiotic properties to the products mentioned in the regime above. So keep going with it, even if your skin breaks down. You should have regular updates with your medical team, and they will also keep an eye on how your skin is holding up throughout and will be able to offer advice where necessary.

However, you may also find that a poultice of Manuka Honey and shredded cabbage leaves provides some immediate relief and will also help the skin to heal. Just mix it up in a bowl or cup, apply to a sterile dressing pad and hold it on the affected area for about 10-15 minutes. If this does happen, you may want to keep some of the mixture in the fridge for even more cooling relief.

If the skin is still intact, but feeling uncomfortably hot, then cold cabbage leaves applied to the area will also help.

Speak to your medical team if there are any signs of infection.

I hope this article helps you as you undertake radiotherapy. What I have described above is what I did, and I found it helped loads. Even if you decide to go your own way, I hope the key things you take away from this post are:

  • You cannot moisturise your skin enough at this stage. Make this a priority in your day and build it in to your daily routine.
  • Hydrate as much as you can, even if it means you are peeing every 5 minutes, it will help you in so many ways as you undertake radiotherapy
  • Treat your skin like it is the most precious thing known to mankind – no harsh chemicals, or extremes of temperature

Good luck – for many of you this will be the end of your treatment – hooray! Use this as a great opportunity to treat yourself


If you want to shop the products mentioned in the article, all are available within the shop – for quick access click the links above.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply