Getting Out of the Red

Sue Chung Health Guide

  • Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to


    That old phrase about a cure being worse than the disease could have been invented specifically for cancer. Cancer alone can do a number on your health. However, the treatment works by controlling the rapid growth of cancerous cells and the harsh nature of the therapy often results in a variety of side effects and physical reactions that leave your skin red, raw, sensitive and sore.


    Radiation therapies target cancer cells by slowing their rate of proliferation. New skin cells form in the deeper layers of our skin and move outwards rapidly in order to replace the dead cells we slough off at the surface on a daily basis. The similarly fast-paced rate of turnover for both kinds of cells means that radiation interferes with our healthy skin cells as a type of collateral damage.

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    The result? Skin’s normal barrier function (its ability to keep water in and bacteria out) suffers and causes dry, sensitive, irritated skin. Often, the skin can remain flaky and sore for weeks after radiation treatment begins. When you’re busy worrying about the state of your health, worrying about the state of your skin seems like an unnecessary burden. So what can you do to soothe your skin while your body heals?


    The answer is far simpler than you think. With the help of four basic guidelines, you can comfort your skin and help repair its barrier function while you wait for it to acclimatize to the therapy. Follow these four rules to help heal and protect your skin from the harsh effects of radiation.


    1. Choose Moisture-Retaining Products. Apply products that retain moisture in your skin. Specifically, look for two kinds of ingredients: Humectants and emollients. Humectants attract water to the surface of the skin while emollients have a high oil content that prevents the loss of this moisture. Humectants include hyaluronic acid, glycerin, panthenol and sodium PCA. Emollients include shea butter, petrolatum and a variety of plant oils such as safflower and jojoba. Kiehl’s Panthenol Protein Moisturizing Face Cream and CeraVe both feature several of these types of ingredients and can help soothe painfully dry skin.


    2. No Exfoliants. Avoid products that may further irritate your skin, advises Sandy Tsao, a dermatologist in Boston, Massachusetts. Exfoliants are especially harmful when your skin already feels raw. Alpha hydroxy acids, retinol and scrubs are all potential irritants as well as ingredients that cause dryness, such as alcohol or benzoyl peroxide. In addition, avoid any fragranced products since fragrances are common skin irritants for those with sensitive skin.

    When it comes to treating sensitive or irritated skin, Dr. Tsao urges you to remember this rule:


    3. For Treatment, the Fewer the Ingredients, the Better. Most lengthy ingredient lists include additives or stabilizers that may aggravate dry skin. Stick with products that use the basics. Aquaphor Original Ointment contains just four ingredients while Bath and Body Works’ Too Shea balm features 100% shea butter with no additives.


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    4. Choose Makeup That Moisturizes with SPF. If you choose to wear makeup while your skin is still sensitive, stick with formulations that moisturize and contain SPF. A good choice is bareMinerals, a preservative and fragrance-free crushed mineral makeup with SPF 15. The product contains only five ingredients, which minimizes the potential for irritation, and boasts a seal of approval from the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Published On: February 09, 2007