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Skin changes associated with chemotherapy include dryness, hair loss, and scaly skin.

Skin Changes Associated with Chemotherapy

Individuals undergoing chemotherapy may notice various skin changes. While side effects such as hair loss can be unpleasant, they must be balanced against the effectiveness of cancer treatment.

By definition, cancer is a fast-growing cell. It’s an unregulated cell in the body that grows at a more rapid rate than most other cells in our body.

Chemotherapy drugs attack or destroy fast-growing cells. Unfortunately, some normal cells, such as hair follicles and skin, grow at a rapid rate as well. The chemotherapy agents do not know the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells and therefore attack both.

The most common fast growing cells that are damaged by chemotherapy include blood-forming cells in the bone marrow, hair follicles, nails, and cells in the mouth.

The skin is one of the organs affected by chemotherapy. The skin is the largest organ in the body and has one of the most rapid turnover rates. The surface layer of the skin, called the epidermis, is constantly peeling off and healthy new skin cells are constantly forming. In fact, the human body typically loses thousands of skin cells every day.

Because chemotherapy drugs destroy cells that are turning over, the skin is susceptible to the treatment. Effects may include red skin, skin that peels, and dry, itchy skin.

Many people also develop sun sensitivity to chemotherapy, and red, dry, scaly, itchy skin occurs. For these reasons, sun protection including sun protective clothing, sunblock, and shade is a must during chemotherapy.

Healthy skin is moist, non-sunburned skin.

You should use good moisturizers and sunblock while on chemotherapy. Dry, cracking skin can lead to superficial infections of the skin. Patients on chemotherapy are immunosuppressed and at risk for superficial infections. Proper skin care, therefore, is important.

Skin changes associated with chemotherapy can occur in tandem with the treatments or months later. Skin has memory. Therefore, some skin changes can last long after the chemotherapy is complete. It can take six months to a year for hair to regrow, and patients can experience dryness in their skin for months if not years after completing chemotherapy.

Treatments, prevention tips, and remedies include:

  • making sure that showers or baths are short and that only lukewarm, not hot, water is used
  • using gentle soaps or cleansers
  • gently patting skin dry after showering and then applying moisturizer while the skin is still moist
  • maintaining a healthy diet
  • maintaining good hydration by drinking 3 to 4 glasses of water per day, or as recommended by your physician

Finally, some skin rashes need immediate attention. Sudden, severe itching, redness, widespread rash, or hives during chemotherapy may be signs of allergic reaction. You should call your doctor if you develop any of these symptoms.

The skin specialists at Associated Dermatologist work closely with your primary physician and oncologist to allow maximum treatment with minimal side effects to aid in treatment success.


Contact Associated Dermatologists to make an appointment or more information about skin changes associated with chemotherapy.