Skin Reactions

Dry and Itchy Skin

Dry skin is commonly found in people living with cancer, even before their treatments start. However, many cancer treatments can cause or worsen dry skin because they slow down the skin’s ability to renew itself.

The epidermis, which is the skin’s outermost layer, normally acts as a waterproof barrier that keeps water both in and out as necessary. But when your skin is dry, it allows more water loss from the body, which often leads to itching and scratching. If you experience dry, itchy skin as a side effect of your cancer or cancer treatment, do not ignore it. Instead, talk to your health care team, as remedies and relief options are readily available.

Dry skin

Dry skin is more frequent in the winter months, when the weather is cold and dry, but it can occur at any time of year. Dry skin is typically most evident on the palms of the hands and the forearms as well as on the soles of the feet and the lower legs. However, this can vary significantly from person to person.

If your skin is dry, you are likely experiencing a skin tightening sensation, which may feel more extreme after bathing. Your skin may also look rough, shrunken, flaky, scaly, cracked and/or red. In severe cases, deep, painful fissures in the skin may even bleed.

In general, creams or ointments are more effective than lotions because they are better able to retain the moisture in your skin. Remember these key points to keep your skin moisturized:

  • Apply creams or ointments at least twice a day.
  • Application should occur within 15 minutes of showering or bathing.
  • Use lukewarm or warm water for baths, which should be kept brief.
  • Avoid soaps and detergents with added fragrance.
  • Avoid loofahs, scrubs or sponges in the shower or bath.
  • Use creams with few or no irritating (fragranced) ingredients.
  • For thick, scaly areas, use creams containing urea, ammonium lactate or salicylic acid.
  • For cracks or fissures in the fingertips and heels, apply thick creams containing zinc oxide (Desitin) at least four times a day, and put on cotton gloves and socks after applying creams at night.

Itchy skin

Itchy skin is one of the most common symptoms that cancer survivors report after their treatments. Certain types of cancer, such as lymphomas, can cause an itch, but most of the time it is the treatment itself that causes this side effect. When an itch affects your ability to complete daily activities or stay asleep, it can become a significant problem.

If you are experiencing itchiness, avoid anything that can irritate the skin, including fragranced soaps, creams or detergents. It also is important to avoid scratching, even when the desire is strong. Look for over-the-counter creams or lotions containing menthol, camphor or pramoxine, and apply them many times a day to relieve the itch. You also can take over-the-counter oral antihistamines, such as cetirizine, fexofenadine and diphenhydramine to help relieve the itch. If your itch becomes resistant to over-the-counter preparations, your doctor may prescribe oral antihistamines or topical or oral corticosteroids.

Dry Skin and Flaking