Caring for Your Skin and Nails During Chemotherapy

Skin and nail side effects are not uncommon when having chemotherapy treatments. Skin that is dry and itchy and changes in nail appearance are the most common side-effects and are both temporary.

Before you begin treatment, speak with your medical oncologist about what you might expect in the way of skin and nail reactions given the chemotherapy drugs you will be receiving. If you have dry skin prior to beginning treatment, your treatments may worsen your dry skin.

Whether you are about to start treatment, are already in treatment, or finished treatment, it is a good idea to see a dermatologist about your skin and nail care. Bring your medical records when you first get together so the dermatologist will know your treatment course, and what, if any, skin and nail problems are a possibility, or have occurred to date. Be sure to share the dermatologist’s recommendations with the rest of your treatment team.

Woman applying lotion to her cuticles
Gianni Diliberto / Getty Images

Skin Care:

You will need and want to get help for any skin side effects as soon as possible. If you delay in bringing skin and nail problems to your treatment team, you run the risk of them worsening.

Your treatment team will advise you to follow these skincare measures:

  • Keep showers short; use lukewarm rather than hot water.
  • Don’t use scrubs or loofahs, which can rob you of natural oils; also, after many uses, they may contain bacteria that could add to your skin problems.
  • Use a moisturizer such as a cream or an ointment as their thicker consistency is better than a lotion when it comes to preventing skin dehydration. Moisturize within 15 minutes of taking a shower. 
  • Moisturize your hands after each time you wash them.
  • Use only fragrance-free soaps, creams or ointments as well as detergents.
  • Don’t use perfumes and colognes.
  • Do not use fabric softeners.
  • Don’t use topical acne preparations.
  • Avoid alcohols and astringents that will dry the skin.
  • Don’t use skin peeling or skin resurfacing products.
  • Avoid botanicals common to skincare products such as Arnica, ginseng, menthol, tea tree, camphor, eucalyptus, wintergreen, and others that are known irritants.
  • Avoid products that help you exfoliate your skin.
  • Difficult as it may be, try not to scratch your dry, itchy skin. It will only make your situation worse.
  • When you are in chemotherapy treatment, you may sunburn easier. Wear a sunblock with at least an SPF 30, and make sure that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • While you don’t need to avoid the sun during chemotherapy, it is a good idea to wear a broad-brimmed hat and sun-protective clothing. It’s recommended that you reapply sunscreen every two hours if you are outside.
  • Before you go swimming, speak to your oncologist. Unless you have an open sore or infection, it is usually not a problem. Hot tubs and saunas are not recommended.

Nail Care

The texture or color of your nails may be affected during chemotherapy. Some patients do report discomfort and even pain in their nails. Nails may be brittle, have grooves, and become discolored. Your nails may not grow as fast, and there may be a lifting of the nail bed. There are ways of managing nail problems. Begin by bringing the changes to the attention of your treatment team. They will likely recommend that you:

  • Keep your nails short
  • Do not trim your cuticles.
  • Use cuticle cream and rub into your cuticle area.
  • Always wear gloves when doing things like cleaning or washing dishes.
  • Don’t get manicures or pedicures.
  • Since nail polish remover can be damaging to nails, don’t change polishes very often.
  • Wear nail polish that will help keep nails strong and will serve as protection from elements in the environment.
  • When nails are very dry, they often become weak and more brittle during chemotherapy. Use an oily polish remover, which will be easier on weak and brittle nails.
  • Don’t use artificial nails.

Once chemotherapy is over, you can get manicures and pedicures. You can also use nail strengtheners or natural supplements to help your nails regain their strength.

Keep a close watch on your skin. If you see any inflammation or skin rash that looks open or is producing a discharge get medical help immediately. It could mean that you have an infection and need treatment with antibiotics,

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  • American Cancer Society: Chemotherapy, Skin and Nail Changes.