Managing Skin Problems From Radiation Therapy

Many people who undergo external radiation therapy develop skin problems that may continue long after their treatment has ended. External radiation therapyor external beam radiation, is done during outpatient visits to a hospital or treatment center and uses a machine that directs high-energy rays from outside the body into the tumor.

Radiologist speaking with a patient who is about to undergo an MRI exam
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For most people, the period of external radiation therapy treatment spans over many weeks. The radiation dosage and the number of treatments are based on a few different factors:

  • The type of cancer
  • The size of the cancer
  • The location of the cancer
  • Your general health
  • Any other treatments you may be undergoing

In addition to killing cancer cells, radiation therapy can also damage healthy body tissue around the area being treated, which is why you will need to take special care to protect yourself from the potential side effects.

Before treatment, be sure to speak to your medical team about any additional side effects you may come to expect and follow their advice for managing those side effects. Commonly reported side effects of external radiation therapy include fatigue, hair loss in the treatment area, eating problems, and skin problems.

Skin Problems Are a Common Side Effect

Skin problems are a common side effect of external radiation therapy. The types of skin problems that occur as a result of radiation therapy include:

  • Itchiness
  • Redness or sunburn-like appearance
  • Dryness
  • General irritation
  • Skin may appear tan

These side effects occur in the area being exposed to radiation. People may also lose hair in the area being treated.

Tips for Managing Irritation

Taking special care of the skin in the specific treatment area is very important in managing skin problems during radiation therapy. You may find the following tips helpful in reducing skin irritation:

  • Do not apply any cream two hours before or immediately after therapy unless directed by a healthcare provider as some skin cream products may change the radiation dosage that enters the body.
  • Use only lukewarm water cleanse the area during bathing. Do not put heating pads, heat lamps, or ice packs on the treatment area since even hot water may hurt your skin.
  • Do not use scented soaps, perfumes, lotions, deodorants, cosmetics or creams on the treated area unless directed by your healthcare provider.
  • Do not wear tight-fitting clothing around the treatment area. It may rub against the area causing irritation.
  • Avoid exposing the treated area to the sun or use tanning salons—even well after radiation therapy has ended.
  • Avoid scratching the skin even if itchy.
  • Report any skin problems to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider may be able to prescribe an ointment or cream to reduce discomfort.

Even though most skin reactions go away over time after radiation therapy treatment has ended, there are some cases where the treated skin will stay darker or be more sensitive than it was before treatment. Ask your medical team if you should be protecting your skin with sunscreen at any point and take extra care to be gentle with your skin.

5 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. External Beam Radiation Therapy. American Cancer Society. February 2017.

  2. Radiation Therapy Side Effects. National Cancer Institute. Mary 2018.

  3. Bray FN, Simmons BJ, Wolfson AH, Nouri K. Acute and Chronic Cutaneous Reactions to Ionizing Radiation Therapy. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2016;6(2):185-206.  doi:10.1007/s13555-016-0120-y

  4. Coping With Radiation Treatment. American Cancer Society. October 2017.

  5. Skin and Nail Changes during Cancer Treatment. National Cancer Institute. June 2019.

Additional Reading

By Lisa Fayed
Lisa Fayed is a freelance medical writer, cancer educator and patient advocate.