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 and one person every ten minutes will be diagnosed with breast cancer so I thought it high time to address an issue that 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, radiotherapy or beyond – is hard enough, without feeling trapped in a body that no longer looks or feels like your own.
What are the effects of chemotherapy on the skin?
"With many types of cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy, 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 London's 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 Winwood, CEO of Made For Life Organics , a skincare brand that incorporates a charity supporting wellbeing during 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 like this, using a gentle skincare product makes good sense. Many oncologists and nurses advise their cancer patients to both eat organic and use organic skincare as part of the recovery process. [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. 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, 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.
MORE GLOSS: Best high street and drugstore skincare buys when you are going through cancer treatment, according to an oncologist
It's also worth bearing in mind the advice of Dr Fiona McCarthy – a dual-qualified oncologist and aesthetics doctor – and exercising caution when trying any new product, however 'natural' it may promise to be. "Essential oils and fragrances can be irritating to sensitive skins, especially during cancer treatment, and even products labelled 'natural' or 'organic' will often contain these," she explains.
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 some control with these plant-based ranges, designed to cosset and soothe your skin when it needs it the most.
BEST NATURAL SKINCARE BRANDS TO USE DURING CANCER TREATMENT
- for when you're missing your actives
If you previously enjoyed a clinic-grade routine filled with plenty of actives, you'll love Trio Therapeutic Skincare's premium range developed by Esther Fieldgrass, founder of EF Medispa's medical spas and skin clinics. It comprises three collections – each designed for cancer patients during a different stage of their journey and with emotional wellbeing in mind, too.
The Sensitive collection is perfect for those who want results-driven luxury skincare post-cancer treatment when skin is a little less reactive but still requires plenty of hydration. It uses soothing essential oils like frankincense and mandarin to help comfort and uplift. For those whose skin is relatively back to normal, but still crave harmony and relaxation, there's the Balanced Collection.
However, the standout is the Extra Sensitive collection, for when skin is at its most fragile. It targets the dryness, soreness, itching and flaking that can strike during chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Free from fragrance, water, parabens, oestrogens and essential oils, the eight formulations use as few ingredients as possible to minimise any chance of a reaction. Check out Trio Therapeutic Skincare Nourish Foot Balm , £55, and Trio Therapeutic Skincare Nourish Nail Oil , £45.
– pharmacist-backed skincare
The brainchild of pharmacist Pedro Catala – who boasts 20 years worth of experience in plants and herbology – Twelve Beauty is used in many clinics to treat patients whose skin is compromised.
“Working as a pharmacist for over a decade, I noticed that many 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 solution for dehydrated skin.
" Rewarding Body Balm , £80, was the first product I created. The product name was suggested by patients of a clinic in London who said it comforted them and felt like a soothing and refreshing 'reward' for the skin," Pedro comments.
The rich balm, originally developed for hospital use only, is designed to mimic the natural oils we have in the skin, at the same concentrations.
– botanical blends and enabling spa access for cancer patients
Previously known as Spieza Organics, Made for Life Organics is a botanical skincare line blended in Cornwall that incorporates the Made For Life Foundation – a charity that holds events for those diagnosed with and recovering from cancer. It also offers a fully accredited three-day Cancer Touch Therapy training course which, crucially, allows spas to obtain the insurance cover needed for them to accept cancer patients.
“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 Balm , £28, and Sore Skin Relief with Propolis , £28.
Made for Life Organics Daily Rejuvenating Face Oil , £49, is another of the brand's heroes, developed following research that showed rose was the scent cancer patients found to be most calming and nausea-easing.
Voya – science-driven seaweed skincare
Certified organic by the Soil Association, this Irish seaweed-based product range is used in spas worldwide. It was also the first spa product house to receive the Wellness for Cancer accreditation. All trainers within the Voya team worked with the American organisation, founded by Julie Bach, to learn the training curriculum which aims to help spas offer better care for guests going through cancer.
Voya Lazy Days Detoxifying Seaweed Bath , £21, is the brand's cult product – consisting of seaweed housed in a net, it offers super hydration as you soak while soothing aches and pains.
MORE GLOSS: we tried a seaweed bath for better sleep
And there's science to back up the brand's signature seaweed formulations. It conducted independent research, in conjunction with the Shannon Biotechnology Research Centre at the Institute of Technology, that showed seaweed has a significant effect on antioxidant protection, collagen production and skin barrier quality.
Pai Skincare – ultimate for sensitive skin
Pai Skincare , also certified by the Soil Association, is always top of my list for organics – it was 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, its team and the 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.
For post-op scarring, the brand suggests mixing a few drops of its popular Pai Skincare Rosehip Regenerate Oil , £24, with Pai Skincare Love & Haight Avocado and Jojoba Hydrating Moisturiser , £38. The latter is also brilliant for soothing and cooling skin during hot flushes.
Indie Lee – the beauty editors' favourite
This chic US range was created by Indie after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After a life-saving op, she set out to create a range of products free from parabens, phthalates, sulphates and artificial fragrances – that's also gained Soil Association certification.
The standout? Indie Lee Squalane Facial Oil , £14 – loved by countless beauty industry experts, it boasts 100 per cent squalane to improve skin texture and tone without a greasy feeling. It's ideal if you're craving nourishment, during treatment, but still prone to blocked pores and spots.
Founder Indie also hosts a popular podcast series, called Coming Clean with Indie Lee , in which she speaks with a range of industry insiders.
– founded by a leukaemia survivor
This sister-founded brand, that's free from fragrance and essential oils, was born following co-founder Lauren's recovery from life-threatening leukaemia. When even supposedly 'natural' ranges irritated her unbearably dry and fragile skin, Lauren's older sibling Sarah stepped in and began formulating plant-based oils to help soothe it.
After her blends transformed Lauren's own complexion, the pair created their award-winning brand that now counts the likes of Trinny Woodall and Melissa Hemsley as fans, as well as many cancer patients.
The latest launch – By Sarah London Saviour Moisture Mask , £44 – is a good weekly option to calm and quench post-chemo skin that's feeling temperamental and especially thirsty.
WHERE TO SHOP FOR NATURAL SKINCARE WHEN YOU ARE GOING THROUGH CHEMO
Set up in February 202, by renowned makeup artist Lisa Potter-Dixon and cancer campaigner Helen Addis, The C-List is the first beauty store for people going through cancer treatment. Allowing you to shop a whole range of treatment-friendly brands, all the products have been expertly curated by the duo.
The idea for the revolutionary online beauty platform was born when cancer survivor Helen, also known as The Titty Gritty , shared how stressful she found beauty shopping during her battle with breast cancer. "Helen felt she needed her 'warpaint' more than ever to get through the rough time, but couldn't bear the thought of using the recommended baby products," according to Lisa.
Spanning makeup, bath and body, nails, hair and skincare, you'll find everything from Victoria Beckham Beauty to Paula's Choice and Beauty Pie.
Imelda’s little shop of wonder in Marylebone which also has an impressive online store 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 Skincare and Twelve, as well as other certified brands such as MV Skintherapy , another of Imelda’s recommendations.
Her advice for treating post-chemo skin? "Look for rich creams which use 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 from evaporating, it's not really providing much more than that.
"If the scalp starts to become dry and irritated, many of our customers find John Masters Zinc and Sage Shampoo with Conditioner , £21, a good switch as it provides some conditioning, but doesn't weigh the hair down if the hair is thinning. A rich mask-like Rahua Omega 9 Mask , £42, 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 also anti-bacterial," Imelda explains.
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; it stocks great brands such as Defiant Beauty, a skincare brand created with an oncology ward by Jennifer Young, author of Beauty Despite Cancer: Recognise Yourself.
Cancer detection and aftercare
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 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 organic beauty site A Beautiful World 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." Check out Salt & Stone Natural Deodorant , £18, that's free from aluminium.
For scars 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 Catala – founder of Twelve Skincare (see above) – 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, (aka Cica) " he explains.
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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