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Sense and Sensitivity

Sense and Sensitivity: ‘Chemo skin’, cancer and skincare

October 14th 2016 / Judy Johnson Google+ Judy Johnson / 0 comment


To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, Judy Johnson looks into how cancer treatment can affect the skin and the brands who are there to help

I live with sensitive skin every day, but people are living with far worse, suffering with compromised skin as an unwelcome side effect of the treatment that’s saving their very life. Someone is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes in the UK; one person every 10 minutes will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and seeing as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it high time to address an issue which may seem trivial in the topic of life and death, yet it’s a problem that causes even more misery to the men and women who are already going through the worst of times. Being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment - be it chemotherapy or radiotherapy or beyond - is hard enough, without feeling trapped in a body that no longer looks or feels like your own.


"With many types of treatment, skin can become more sensitive and people often find they are left dealing with a skin type that they have never dealt with before,” comments Imelda Burke, founder of Content Beauty & Wellbeing in Marylebone. From hair loss to mouth ulcers and everything in between, the drugs we’re all so grateful for are not kind to the body, and as our biggest organ, the skin can be compromised in a way that makes treatment even harder to bear, as well as posing a risk to your already ill health.

Amanda Barlow, Managing Director of Spiezia Organics and founder of the Made for Life Foundation, a charity that supports the wellbeing of those going through cancer, explains: “Most people who go through treatment for cancer will go through chemotherapy. As a result of treatment skin will often become drier and more fragile than ever before. Nails may become brittle, and sometimes skin and nails may become discoloured; your skin will become more sensitised. Radiotherapy can also be very damaging and can leave skin feeling itchy, red, and dry with some swelling. In extreme cases it may even blister. When you are being subjected to strong treatment such as chemotherapy, using a gentle skincare product which is packed with natural goodness and free from any harsh artificial chemicals makes good sense. Many oncologists and nurses we know advise their cancer patients to both eat organic and use organic skincare as part of the recovery process. This means that you are restricting exposure to chemicals. [As the] largest organ of the body, our skin is constantly exposed to germs and chemicals. When you go through chemotherapy, the immune system is suppressed and you are very vulnerable to infection. A healthy skin is needed to protect you."

While the doctors and drugs do their wonderful work to save your health, the desire and need to look after one’s appearance doesn’t suddenly disappear, and nor should it. You’re still you

This is not about scaremongering; there is still so much debate over ‘toxic’ ingredients, parabens and the possible carcinogenic effects of ingredients in our beauty products, that until the research is crystal clear it remains down to the individual to decide what they feel is right for them (I’ve always included both synthetic and natural products in this column for that reason). However, understandably, anyone going through the dreaded C-word will be more wary than ever of what’s going on, and therefore in, their body, and so it makes sense to arm yourself with beauty ingredients knowledge. Of course, it’s also not just cancer sufferers who will be cautious; a close friend of mine has regular chemo for arthritis, and has to be mindful of her skincare and haircare as a result - because while the doctors and drugs do their wonderful work to save your health, the desire and need to look after one’s appearance doesn’t suddenly disappear, and nor should it. You’re still you; and I know only too well how miserable it can be to have irritated, misbehaving skin to deal with on top of anything else.

In the uncertain times of cancer treatment, one thing’s for sure: your beauty regime will need careful consideration. When you’re going through the unimaginable, irritated, temperamental skin will be the least of your problems, but that needn’t mean you should put up with it. Take back control and feel some relief with the help of the following brands, products and retailers. They’ve got your back, so you can face whatever's ahead of you with the healthiest skin possible.


Twelve Skincare

Founded by pharmacist Pedro Catala, TWELVE is used in various clinics to treat patients whose skin is compromised. “Working as a pharmacist for over 10 years I noticed that a variety of patients’ treatments left their skin extremely dry and very vulnerable. The remedies available were not good enough and after months of study I decided to create an effective remedy to treat dehydrated skin. That’s how my non-toxic beauty line TWELVE was born.

"Rewarding Body Balm, £80, was the first product I created. The product name was suggested by patients of the clinic in London where I worked because, according to them, it comforted them and the body balm was seen as a reward to the skin. Currently the product is still in use in other prestigious clinics in Central London, not only as a soothing and refreshing emollient, but also as a complement to other treatments on the hands, arms and legs."

Spiezia Organics and Made for Life

The Cornwall-based Made for Life by Spiezia Organics range is all certified to 100% COSMOS standard by the Soil Association (whatever you use, certification is important here - read my round-up of all you need to know about organic beauty here). As well as creating organic products that are ‘clean’ enough to eat, MD Amanda Barlow founded the Made for Life charity which holds various events for those diagnosed with and recovering from cancer, as well as providing spa rituals with the support of Macmillan (the charity’s goal is that no one should be turned away from a spa because they have cancer, by 2020).

“We use only organic herbs, flowers, botanicals and oils in all our skincare. This results in pH neutral, rich balms and oils which calm and nourish the skin,” Amanda tells me. "Because they do not contain water, they do not require any synthetic additives and the results have been really incredible, with many people recommending in particular our Skin Solve with Calendula, £25, and Sore Skin Relief with Propolis, £25. These gentle balms have been really hugely effective in soothing and restoring troubled skin during cancer treatment and we use them during our Cancer Touch Therapy™ treatments."

A study identified that the scent of rose was the one which most cancer patients found to be calming, prevented nausea and helped them overcome negative reactions to chemotherapY

Interestingly, rose is also an important component in skincare for those undergoing chemo, as Amanda explains. "A clinical study undertaken in Cornwall identified that one of the least affected senses of smell was that of rose. Many patients found other scents were pungent or made them feel nauseous, but the scent of roses was discernible for a much longer period of time during chemotherapy. A study at Syracuse University in New York by Professor Michael Carey identified that the scent of rose was the one which most cancer patients found to be calming, prevented nausea and helped them overcome negative reactions to chemotherapy. That is why our Rose & Vanilla Face Oil, £39, plays such an important part of a skincare regime and also within our spa protocols."



Another certified organic brand with a heart, this Irish seaweed-based product range is used in spas worldwide; it’s also the first spa product house to receive the ‘Wellness for Cancer’ accreditation. All trainers within the VOYA team have now worked with the American organisation, founded by Julie Bach, to learn the training curriculum which aims to help spas offer better care for guests who are going through cancer.

Emma Roberts, Head of Sales for VOYA comments: "The ethos and organic nature of VOYA provides the perfect partnership with Wellness for Cancer. Many of us in the team have had to turn guests away from treatments in the past. This is an upsetting and uncomfortable situation for all involved. When we met Julie at the Global Wellness Summit in 2015 we felt this was the next step for VOYA as part of the brand’s global expansion. Our dream is to have all VOYA spas around the world offering treatments to those who are receiving treatment for cancer and those who are cancer survivors."

Pai Skincare

Pai are always top of my list for organics - they were one of the first brands that allowed me to soothe my sensitive skin without using those dreaded tubs of aqueous cream from the chemist. Best of all, their team and their founder, Sarah Brown, are knowledgable in all kinds of sensitivity; customers can contact them directly with questions about skincare and they can advise on what’s best. Certified by the Soil Association, I’d recommend any product in their range if you’re looking for a comforting beauty treat that won’t compromise your skin. Check out Sarah’s blog post on the ingredients cancer patients should avoid for more information here.

Indie Lee

This beautifully packaged range was created by Indie after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour (which she’s written about here); after a life-saving op she set out to create a range of products that were free from potentially harmful substances (everything is paraben free, phthalate free, sulfate free and with no artificial fragrances). The eco-luxe range looks every bit as high end as your non-natural cult classics, are just as efficacious but look after your health too. Shop the range here at abeautifulworld.



Content Beauty & Wellbeing

Imelda’s little shop of wonder in Marylebone is a godsend for anyone with sensitive skin, no matter what the cause. Shop online or, if you can, head to the boutique itself for no-nonsense, sympathetic advice on skincare and mineral makeup; Imelda’s ingredients knowledge is second to none, and the shop stocks many of the favourites I’ve already mentioned above, such as Pai and Twelve, as well as other certified brands such as MV Skincare, another of Imelda’s recommendations. In terms of treating ‘chemo skin’, Imelda urges you to moisturise more often, be it the body, scalp or nails.

"Look for rich creams which combine both hydrating and nourishing ingredients (combining waters and oils or butters) instead of mineral oil. While mineral oil can form a barrier on the skin to stop moisture evaporating from the skin it's not really providing much more than that. If the scalp starts to become dry and irritated many of our customers find the John Masters Zinc and Sage Shampoo with Conditioner, £21 a good switch as it provides some conditioning, but doesn't weigh the hair down by being too rich if the hair is thinning. A rich mask like the Rahua Omega 9 Mask, £47 is a nice treat for the skin on the scalp and for hair as it starts to grow back. If nails dry out or start to crack try massaging with oils - coconut oil is ideal for feet as it's anti-bacterial also."

Not Another Bunch of Flowers

When news of this site dropped into my inbox recently it really touched a nerve. Created by breast cancer survivor Anikka Burton, the online shop stocks products and gift ideas to send to loved ones who are going through illness - without it being just another bunch of flowers (because though flowers are lovely, if everyone sends them you’ll end up using saucepans as vases as Anikka did at the time of her diagnosis). It’s so hard to know what to give someone who is going through hell, but this site whittles it down to a helpful, thoughtful edit. Of course, you can also shop there yourself if you’re the patient; they stock great brands such as Defiant Beauty, a skincare brand created with an oncology ward by Jennifer Young, author of Beauty Despite Cancer: Recognise Yourself. Shop online from £5.


Myon Pure

With a mantra that your skin is ‘a carrier not a barrier’, Amanda O’Neill set up Myon Pure, an online shopping destination for all things organic and natural after being diagnosed with breast cancer at the ages of 33, and despite surgery and treatment the all-clear didn’t come. Amanda delved into researching how to lead a healthier lifestyle to ensure the best prognosis, and after learning more about beauty ingredients, the site was born. With a survivor at the helm who understands what you’re going through, you can’t go wrong.


Detect: We all need to be as aware of symptoms as possible (hence Breast Cancer Awareness Month) and there are beauty brands getting in on the act to help, from the special pink editions of our favourite products (see our pick of the best for 2016 here) that occur each year to the likes of Boobs’ Essential, an essential oil range created in order to instil a daily habit of checking the breasts while treating the skin too. Because why shouldn’t self-care involve some kind of pampering while we’re at it? Whether you’re simply health-conscious or have had someone close to you go through the disease, step up and protect yourself by ensuring early detection with this daily ritual.

Soothe: With breast cancer, the obvious yet often neglected area that needs attention is under the arms, as Liz McCarthy, founder of abeautifulworld tells me. “As we absorb so much through our underarms it’s really important to be careful what we put there. Post cancer treatment this can often be sore too, so it ideally needs to be something that can nourish the skin. The Schmidts range, especially their products for sensitive skin, are fantastic for this. Firstly the deodorant actually works; it’s in a stick so easy to apply in the right places (which is also very helpful post-treatment as movement in the arms might be a little more limited than normal). It doesn’t contain any aluminium, propylene glycol, phthalates or parabens, and it also contains coconut oil and shea butter to nourish the skin."

Treat: If you’ve had to have surgery, chances are you’ll have a visible scar or two, and if this is something that will bother you later Pedro has some advice on the natural healers that can help. "If you have any scars after surgery the best ingredients to look out for are: aloe vera, St John's Wort, basil, chamomile, imperatoria, rosemary, licorice and centella asiatica."

For more information, support and advice about breast cancer head to Breast Cancer Care's website

What are your personal beauty recommendations for those going through cancer and chemo? Let me know in the comments...

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