Do's and Don'ts to Managing the Skin Reactions to Topical Chemotherapy

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Topical chemotherapy is a targeted treatment. It is applied directly to the affected area and side effects are much less severe than traditional chemotherapy. As the topical chemotherapy kills cancer cells, it can also damage surrounding cells, which causes the side effects, such as redness, rash, itching or pain.

If you experience side effects, you should let your doctor know. He can provide you with information to help you manage the side effects. For some of the more common side effects, there are ways you can minimize your discomfort.

Dry Skin - Scaling, roughness, itching or your skin feeling tight.


  • Use moisturizer on a regular basis, always apply moisturizer after bathing while your skin is still damp

  • Drink plenty of fluids

  • Keep your skin protected when outdoors

  • Use warm, not hot water when bathing

  • Pat yourself dry instead of rubbing

  • Use gentle, non-perfumed cleansers

  • Apply cornstarch as a dusting powder


  • Avoid perfumed products or harsh cleansers, including laundry detergents

  • Avoid lanolin-based lotions and ointments

  • Avoid wool, synthetic or rough clothing

  • Avoid using harsh cleaning products without rubber gloves

Rashes - The term rash is a general term used to describe a number of different skin reactions, such as redness, small raised lesions, flat areas, red blotches or swelling. Some rashes are itchy, resemble sores or have pus. Some studies have shown that developing a rash is a sign that the treatment is working.


  • Talk to your doctor about all the medications you are taking to determine if your rash could be an allergic reaction or interaction between medications

  • Talk to your doctor to determine if medication, such as antibiotics or steroid creams, is needed to relieve the rash

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing

  • Wear sunscreen to protect your skin when outdoors

  • Use calamine lotion to help reduce itching

  • Use antihistamines to reduce allergic reactions if directed to do so by your doctor

  • Use cornstarch as a dusting powder to help reduce itching


  • Avoid using cleansers that contain perfume or harsh chemicals

  • Avoid tanning beds or any type of indoor tanning

  • Don't immediately stop any medications. Talk with your doctor first.

  • Take long, hot showers. Shorter, lukewarm showers are better for your skin

  • Avoid extremes in temperatures

  • Avoid friction from clothing or other items

Nail Changes - Horizontal or vertical bands of discoloration, horizontal depressions in the nail or separation of the nail from the nail bed


  • Keep your nails trimmed and clean

  • Wear gloves when using household cleaning products

  • Talk to your doctor if you believe you notice pain or redness around your cuticles

  • Apply moisturizers, such as petroleum jelly to your hands and feet. You can apply this and wear a pair of socks or cotton gloves to help retain the moisture

  • Talk to your doctor about using antibacterial soap or antifungal ointments to help prevent infection


  • Avoid using nail polish or fake fingernails until the nails have grown out and returned to normal

  • Use over-the-counter products on your nails without first consulting your doctor

  • Don't bite your nails

  • Avoid wearing tight shoes

  • Avoid pushing back yhour cuticles

Photosensitivity - increased sensitivity to sunlight


  • Use sunscreen and protective clothing when outdoors, even during the winter months and on cloudy days

  • Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible

  • Apply moisturizing lotion after being in the sunlight

  • Use cool wet clothes to reduce redness and swelling


  • Avoid tanning beds and indoor tanning

  • Don't expect your skin to react to the sun the way it did before using topical chemotherapy

  • Don't forget to use a lip balm to protect your lips


"Managing Chemotherapy Side Effect," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Stanford Medicine Cancer Institute

"Skin Reactions," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, The Scott Hamilton CARES Initiative

"Tips for Managing Treatment-Related Rash and Dry Skin," Date Unknown, Stewart B. Fleishman et al,

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.