How to Prevent and Manage Dry Skin From Chemo

Chemotherapy medications have the potential of causing many side effects, one of them being dry skin. Dry skin occurs when the layers of the skin lose essential oils and moisture. Chemotherapy drugs like fluorouracil (5-FU) can cause the skin to become dry and cracked. If the skin is significantly dry, there may even be bleeding between the lines of skin covering joints such as the knuckles or elbows.

This article will review ways to prevent or manage dry skin from chemotherapy, and instances of when to notify the healthcare provider.

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How to Manage

There are several ways you can help prevent and manage dry skin at home. Following these suggestions can increase moisture in the skin and prevent complications from dry skin.

Identify Dry Skin Early

Inspect your skin routinely for areas of dryness or discomfort. Dry skin appears rough and flaky and may become cracked and peeled. The skin may feel tight and become itchy. Identifying dry skin early and starting treatment to manage it is helpful.

Stay Hydrated

Dry skin can be helped by having enough hydration in the body, as dehydration can be a cause of skin dryness. The exact recommendations for daily fluid intake vary based on gender and age. A good daily estimate is 101 ounces (about 13 cups) for men and 74 ounces (about 9 cups) for women.

Avoid Alcohol Based Products

The chemicals, including alcohol, in perfumed products like soaps, cosmetics, moisturizers, lotions, and body sprays can irritate the skin. They can also be very drying and remove the natural oils on the skin.

Use products labeled perfume-free, allergen-free, or "for sensitive skin." Your healthcare provider may recommend gentle cleansers to clean the skin.

Keep Showers Short and Warm

Long hot showers can remove the natural oils from the skin, which dry it out. Using lukewarm water can prevent drying the skin too much. Additionally when in the shower, avoid using rough exfoliants such as loofahs or bath scrubs.

Pat, don’t rub, your skin dry after bathing. The friction of rubbing a towel over wet skin can cause and irritate dry skin.

When getting out of the shower, don't use a blow dryer to dry yourself. Body oils or lotions can also be applied to wet skin before drying as they trap a layer of moisture between the skin. These oils can also be very slippery, so be careful when stepping out of the tub or shower after moisturizing.

Moisturize

Moisturizing the skin regularly is an important step in keeping skin from becoming too dry. Moisturizing regularly with a skin cream is recommended. Using cream after showering can help retain some of the moisture from the water.

If the skin is cracked or incredibly dry, creams and lotions that contain urea, ammonium, or salicylic acid may be especially helpful in improving moisture in the skin.

Choose Mild Laundry Detergent

Some detergents contain perfumes that can irritate the skin. Choose laundry detergents that are free of perfumes, scents, and allergens. They may be labeled as "allergen-free," "unscented" or as a "clear" liquid. Detergents that are marketed for babies also may be mild enough for dry skin.

Wear Gloves

When doing chores like cleaning, washing dishes, or gardening, avoid using extremely hot water and protect your hands by wearing rubber gloves. The gloves will protect you from chemicals in household cleaners and outdoor lawn/gardening products.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

If you notice your skin becoming increasingly dry and painful, talk to your healthcare provider. Signs of extreme dryness include painful, cracked skin that may or may not bleed, intense itching, redness, and inflammation.

Your healthcare provider may be able to prescribe a topical cream or lotion. They may also refer you to a dermatologist to aid with the care of your skin.

Summary

Dry skin is a common symptom associated with cancer treatment. Keeping a close eye on the skin can help prevent dry skin and its complications. Some important tips to follow include moisturizing regularly and hydrating well by drinking water.

Another point to remember is to be gentle to the skin. Using mild detergents and soaps as well as avoiding significant pressure when washing can improve skin moisture.

A Word From Verywell

Dry skin can be a bothersome symptom for people getting chemotherapy. It can be uncomfortable and affect the quality of life. Taking preventative measures to keep skin moisturized helps prevent complications such as cracking, peeling, or bleeding. Always ask your healthcare team for any suggestions of products to use or avoid.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is your skin so dry after chemo?

    Chemotherapy can cause dry skin because of the way the medication works directly on the skin cells. It can also affect some of the ducts that produce oils that hydrate and protect the skin.

  • How long does dry skin last after chemo?

    How long dry skin lasts after chemotherapy depends upon the exact chemotherapy that was given.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Highlights Of Prescribing Information: Fluorouracil. US Food & Drug Administration.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Skin and nail changes during cancer treatment.

  3. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Water. In: Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. National Academies Press; 2005:73-185. doi:10.17226/10925

  4. Bensadoun RJ, Humbert P, Krutman J, et al. Daily baseline skin care in the prevention, treatment, and supportive care of skin toxicity in oncology patients: recommendations from a multinational expert panelCancer Manag Res. 2013;5:401-408. doi: 10.2147/CMAR.S52256

  5. Cancer.Net. Skin conditions.

  6. Contact dermatitis. US National Library of Medicine.

Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. Skin Dryness.

By Julie Scott, MSN, ANP-BC, AOCNP
Julie is an Adult Nurse Practitioner with oncology certification and a healthcare freelance writer with an interest in educating patients and the healthcare community.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed