Skin & Nail Changes

Cancer treatments may cause a range of skin and nail changes. Talk with your health care team to learn whether you will have these changes, based on your treatment.

Minor skin and nail problems are common during cancer treatment, including color changes, redness, itching, dryness, and rashes.

Know the Signs of a Serious Problem

Call a doctor right away if you notice:

  • A rash, sudden or severe itching, or hives.
  • New sores or blisters.
  • Swelling, redness, or any burning or pain near a surgery or procedure site, an IV, or port.

Learn the Causes of Skin and Nail Problems

  • Radiation therapy may cause the skin to be red or darker, dry, itchy, swollen, or puffy. Chemotherapy may also cause dry, itchy skin, as well as blisters and dark, yellow, or cracked nails. Immunotherapy may cause itching and targeted therapy may cause dry skin, rash, and nail problems.
  • Cancer treatment may cause skin problems such as color changes, redness, itching, peeling, rashes, acne, and sensitivity to sun. Learn the causes and what to expect.
  • Certain chemotherapy drugs given through an IV may darken your skin along the vein. This will usually fade after treatment ends.
  • Chemotherapy can cause nails to change color, become brittle, and more easily fall off.
  • Nail infections can cause nails to thicken or darken in color.
  • Chemotherapy in people who have received radiation therapy in the past can cause skin to become red, blister, peel, or hurt on the part of the body that received radiation therapy; this is called radiation recall.

Dealing with Skin and Nail Problems

Depending on your treatment, you may be told to take steps to protect your skin, prevent infection, and reduce itching. Follow these tips and learn more about what you can do.

Use Only Recommended Skin Products

  • Use mild soaps that are gentle on your skin.
  • Ask your nurse to recommend specific lotions and creams. Ask when and how often to use them. Ask what skin products to avoid. For example, you may be told to not use powders or antiperspirants before radiation therapy.
  • Keep your face clean and dry. This may help you manage acne if it develops.

Protect Your Skin

  • Ask your health care team about lotions for dry, itchy skin.
  • Don’t use heating pads, ice packs, or bandages on the area receiving radiation therapy.
  • Shave less often and use an electric razor or stop shaving if your skin is sore.
  • Ask your doctor if it’s all right to use sunscreen and lip balm. Wear a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a hat with a wide brim when outdoors.
  • Protect wounds with clean bandages.

Prevent or Treat Dry, Itchy Skin (Pruritus)

  • Avoid skin products with alcohol or perfume, which can dry or irritate your skin.
  • Take short showers instead of baths and use lukewarm, not hot, water.
  • Put on lotion after drying off from a shower, while your skin is still slightly damp.
  • Keep your home cool and humid.
  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids to help keep your skin moist and healthy.
  • Apply a cool washcloth to the affected area.

Prevent or Treat Minor Nail Problems

  • Keep your nails clean and cut short.
  • Wear gloves when you wash the dishes, work in the garden, or clean the house.
  • Check with your nurse about products that can help your nails. Some over-the-counter products may strengthen your nails, but they could also cause irritation.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

  • Get advice from your health care team if your skin and nail problems don’t go away or get better in response to your efforts.
  • If your skin hurts in the area where you get treatment, tell your doctor or nurse.
  • Prepare for your visit by making a list of questions to ask. Consider adding these questions to your list:
    • What symptoms or problems should I call you about?
    • What steps can I take to feel better?
    • What brands of soap and lotion are best for me to use? What products can help my nails stay healthy?
    • What skin and nail products should I avoid?
    • When will these problems go away?

Listen to Tips on Managing Skin and Nail Problems

Listen to what you can do about mild skin changes during radiation therapy.

Get Support

For more detailed information on support options, visit Get Support.

Talk to Your Health Care Team

Your health care team needs to know how you’re doing. Be sure to tell them about any changes you notice.

Talk to Family and Friends

Your loved ones want to support you. They can help with activities like housework, running errands, and getting to appointments. Be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need.

Find Peer Support

Talk About Your Concerns

Peer groups offer a welcoming environment to share your feelings and experiences with people who are going through the same things. Use the American Cancer Society’s Resource Search to find a peer group in your area or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for personalized assistance.

Visit the Cancer Survivors Network Online

The Cancer Survivors Network is an online community with more than 40 discussion boards where cancer survivors share their cancer-related experiences, support one another, and exchange practical tips.

NCI Cancer Information Service

Call

Speak to a National Cancer Institute health information specialist by calling 1-800-4-Cancer.

Chat

The National Cancer Institute offers live, online assistance through its LiveHelp service.

ACS National Cancer Information Center

Get Tips

Get information and tips from a cancer information specialist at the American Cancer Society by calling 1-800-227-2345. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Chat

The American Cancer Society offers live, online assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Select the Live Chat option from any page on cancer.org.

Learn More About Skin and Nail Changes

The National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including skin and nail changes.