Cancer treatments, while life-saving, often come with challenging side effects for our skin, hair, and nails. Here’s what you need to know and how to minimise the impact
It’s an unfortunate and devastating reality that many of us will know someone affected by cancer.
Stats show that one in two people face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime and a quarter of these patients will go through chemotherapy, among other treatments.
In fact, more than 320,000 people received treatment for cancer in the UK last year which was the highest year on record – up by more than 8,000 on the same period pre-pandemic.
What’s more, not only did the NHS see and treat more people than ever before for cancer, but recent data also shows 100,000 patients were diagnosed with cancer at stages one or two when it is easier to treat.
Again, this is the highest proportion on record.
Yet while these treatments are designed to target and kill cancer cells, they also impact other rapidly dividing cells in our body, including those in our skin and hair.
The physical and mental toll of which, on people already going through a scary and uncertain time, cannot be underestimated.
If you’re just starting out on your cancer journey, or you want to support a loved one who is, we explain some of the key symptoms to look out for and expect below.
We also offer ways in which you can minimise these side effects so you have one less thing to worry about.
While there is a growing number of cancer treatments, some of which are still undergoing clinical trials, if you’ve received a diagnosis you’ll likely be offered one of three main treatments – chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapy.
Below we summarise each treatment before explaining their individual side effects, if you want to jump straight to the side-effects of your treatment, click the “Jump to section” links next to each treatment.
FURTHER READING: Support cancer research charities with these beauty brands | Do you know what skin cancer looks like? | Boots and Macmillan launch No7 virtual beauty consultations for women going through cancer | The best moisturisers for dry skin | Expert tips on how to stop or regrow thinning hair
There are a number of different chemotherapy drugs, each with their own strengths. Some damage the DNA of the cancer cells, preventing them from replicating. Others target the structures or functions within the cell, such as the cell’s skeleton or the enzymes required for cell division.
Depending on the treatment, and dose, chemotherapy can be administered via chemo pills, intravenously, topically on the skin, or by injection into specific sites.
Below are chemo side effects you can expect on your skin and hair. You may not get all of these side effects, or they may not be as severe as others.
Hair follicles, responsible for hair growth, are among the fastest-growing cells in the body. Chemo drugs, targeting rapidly dividing cells, often affect these follicles which causes them to stop working as effectively.
If you’re going through chemo, you might notice hair thinning or bald patches a few weeks into treatment. This hair loss can occur anywhere on the body, including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, and pubic area. The extent of hair loss varies depending on the drug, dose, and individual.
After the chemotherapy course is complete, the drugs can stay in your body for some time, yet as they slowly leave and your hair follicles start working again, you may find you experience what’s known as chemo curls.
This is when the hair follicles may produce different types of hair, which might make it curly. Even if it’s always been straight. You can read more about how the shape of your hair follicle determines your hair type in our What type of hair do I have? guide, and our curly hair products 101 guide.
These side effects can be seen across your body, so aren’t just seen on your face. This includes your scalp, which can play a further role in hair loss or thinning.
Just like hair and skin cells, nail cells also divide rapidly and can be affected by chemo. You might find that you get brittle nails, or they become, ridged, or develop dark bands. There’s also a possibility of the nail lifting off the nail bed or becoming discoloured. Read more in our guide on how to strengthen brittle nails.
Radiotherapy, also known as radiation therapy, uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. In particular, radiotherapy damages the DNA within cancer cells, either destroying them or significantly slowing their growth.
The radiation can be delivered externally, using a machine that directs high-energy beams towards the cancer – known as external beam radiation – or internally, where radioactive sources are placed inside the body near the cancer cells. This is known as brachytherapy.
Modern radiotherapy methods, such as intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) and stereotactic radiosurgery, are designed to maximise the dose to the tumor while minimising exposure to the healthy tissue around it.
It’s usually given in small doses over a period of time, known as fractions. This gives normal cells the chance to repair themselves between treatments while cancer cells are less capable of repair.
Due to the localised nature of radiotherapy vs chemotherapy, the side effects are more localised too.
When radiotherapy is directed at a part of the body that grows hair, the radiation can damage the hair follicles in that specific area, leading to hair loss.
If you receive radiotherapy to the brain, for example, you’ll likely only lose hair on your scalp.
If the treatment is targeted at the lower body, you might lose hair in the pubic region.
Similar to chemotherapy, radiotherapy can also affect the nails if the hands or feet are in the treatment area. This can cause nail discoloration, ridges on the nails, or even separation of the nail from the nail bed, known as onycholysis. Read more in our guide on how to strengthen brittle nails.
Unlike chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which directly target cancer cells, immunotherapy works by stimulating or restoring the immune system’s ability to detect and destroy cancer cells.
Some forms of immunotherapy, such as checkpoint inhibitors, work by taking the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, allowing it to recognise and attack cancer cells more effectively. Other types, like CAR T-cell therapy, involve modifying some of the patient’s immune cells to attack specific cancer cells.
While treatments such as cytokines boost the overall activity of the immune cells and their ability to respond to cancer.
Like with chemo, immunotherapy side effects can appear all over your body and you see all, or none of these effects depending on your cancer, dosage and immune system.
Hair side effects are less common with immunotherapy but may be experienced.
Some immunotherapy drugs can lead to hair thinning or loss and you may notice your hair becoming thinner, more brittle, or falling out more easily than before starting treatment.
There have also been reports of changes in hair texture or color in patients undergoing immunotherapy. For example, your hair could grow back with a different texture (curlier or straighter) or colour after treatment, similar to the chemo curls mentioned above.
A number of skin conditions like psoriasis have been linked with changes to the immune system, it’s why they’re called auto-immune diseases. A similar reaction is seen in response to immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy can also affect the nails, though this is less common. You might experience nail discoloration, brittleness, or ridges.
As chemo tends to be the most invasive and impactful, we’ve explained how to minimise chemotherapy side effects below. However, the suggestions and treatments can also be used to minimise immunotherapy and radiotherapy side effects, too as there are many overlaps.
A National Library of Medicine’s study found that 82.6% of patients have hair loss as a severe side effect of cancer treatment so chances are this will be the biggest side effect you experience. Here are some ways to deal with hair loss from chemo and other treatments.
Shave it off: This may seem drastic and may not be what you want to hear, but Macmillan has found that some patients prefer to cut their hair short beforehand so that it does not come as a shock when they start to lose hair due to treatment. Some people even shave their heads before they start treatment while they feel more emotionally and physically stronger to make that decision and to feel more in control.
Invest in a scalp cooling cap: Scalp cooling caps lower the temperature of the scalp blood vessels. This causes these vessels to contract/shrink which reduces how much blood flows to the area. This, in turn, reduces how much of the cancer drug chemicals reach and kill those cells. Although hair may still be lost this reduces the amount of drugs that will reach the hair.
Buy wigs: There are various wig options available for patients. The NHS may give wigs to some patients and there are also charities that provide wigs. These include the the Little Princess Trust, which gives wigs to children going through hair loss, and Wigs for Heroes. You can also donate hair to these charities for use in its wigs. Cancer Research has a great article about how to choose a wig here.
Microblading for eyebrows: Microblading is an option prior to treatment that adds semi-permanent pigments to your eyebrows. You can read more about microblading here. There are also eyebrow stencils that can be used to fill with powder and create an arched brow shape.
False lashes: Eyelure’s C-Lash is owned by Codilia Gapare, a cancer survivor who found that there was no false lash option for someone who had lost all of their natural lashes. C-Lash has different lash lengths and volume to make your lashes look natural. The false lash replacement strips have a flexible band that stays in place all day.
Silk pillowcases and covers: Using silk or satin pillow covers and hair turbans are good for hair loss because it minimises friction, which can pull at the hair and its follicles.
Minimise brushing: Try to reduce how much you brush your hair as it can similarly pull on the follicles, making hair loss worse. Use your fingers to ‘comb’ through your hair, or gently use soft-bristle brushes.
During the treatment process, patients are told to be gentle with their hair and avoid using curling tongs/straighteners, hair dryers, and dyes too.
The Manta hair brush has been designed for cancer patients. It uses a soft-touch material which means no rough edges to catch or tear the hair shaft.
Swap for gentle shampoos and conditioners: Avoid strong fragrances or harsh chemicals in your hair products when going through treatment, and look for fragrance-free shampoos and conditioners to minimise the chance of reaction.
The Philip Kingsley No Scent No Colour Shampoo, and No Scent No Colour Conditioner was created for women who are undergoing treatment for cancer because it’s gentle enough to use on the scalp every day. It was developed for Philip Kingsley’s wife Joan when she was going through treatment for breast cancer and a percentage of each bottle sold is donated to the Look Good Feel Better charity.
Try hair oiling: This is more of a solution for when your treatment is over and your hair starts growing back. The process of massaging the hair oil into the scalp can help stimulate the follicles and encourage growth while nourishing the scalp.
The exact skin products to help when going through treatment will depend on your existing skin type and the severity of your side effects. However, as a general rule:
There is a wealth of resources out there if you need more support.
Look Good Feel Better is a cancer support charity that provides workshops led by volunteers in the beauty industry to give advice on changes they may be facing. They also offer workshops on wellbeing. The charity brings together people going through the same thing so that they feel less isolated and can get help and advice in uncertain times.
Boots offers one-to-one consultations in-store and online, run by pharmacists and beauty consultants, that can help when you have questions about medication or side effects.
Elsewhere, a hotel group in the UK has launched a range of treatments designed to help people who are going through cancer treatments, in remission, or nearing the end of life.
The group, called Exclusive Collection, has partnered with Italian skincare brand, Comfort Zone to launch its Beauty Reloaded program. Each of the treatments focuses on skin renewal, as well as addressing the physical and mental side effects of living with cancer.
Cancer Research UK also has a whole page dedicated to dealing with the side effects of cancer treatments. This includes more detailed information on how chemo side effects impact your skin, hair and nails, as well as hair thinning.
After a stint as mamabella’s first-ever intern, Shyma is now a freelance beauty journalist and influencer. Shyma believes in the empowerment of all individuals so being part of the mamabella team is a perfect fit.