The latest science behind caring for your skin while on chemotherapy
Most people know about side effects, like hair loss, that can accompany cancer treatment. But chemotherapy can also impact your skin. Oncodermatologists and Johnson & Johnson scientists looked into how to care for such skin—leading to a new science-backed line of cleansers, moisturizers and balms designed with cancer patients in mind.
Winter is a common time of year to do battle with dry, cracked skin.
For those battling cancer, it can be a side effect of chemotherapy—and one that doesn’t always get as much attention as other common after effects of chemotherapy treatment.
“Chemotherapy drugs attack fast-growing cells, like cancer cells,” explains Adam Friedman, M.D., Professor and Interim Chair of Dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “Unfortunately, some normal cells, like hair follicle and skin cells, grow rapidly as well. Since chemotherapy drugs don’t know the difference between your body’s healthy cells and cancer cells, they can target both.”
The good news is that this knowledge is enabling scientists to devise new and improved ways to help patients who are dealing with dry, irritated skin as a result of systemic oncology treatment, which includes chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted drugs and immunotherapy.
Scientists like those at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health who teamed up with oncodermatology experts to create a new skincare line from Aveeno® that’s designed to help the distressed skin of adult oncology patients.
We caught up with some of the leads on the project to hear about what they learned from the multiyear endeavor, as well as the latest science behind caring for your skin if you are undergoing treatment.
A new field called oncodermatology can help provide a specialized approach to caring for your skin while undergoing treatment.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, a visit to your skin doctor may be the last thing on your mind. But dermatologists can help manage uncomfortable skin-related side effects from oncology treatment, such as itching, dry skin and rashes.
In fact, many leading cancer institutes now have oncodermatology clinics, so frequent visits with a dermatologist can be baked into a treatment plan.
Scientists tested the regimen in 40 patients over several years with the oversight and approval of a hospital review board.
That’s what inspired Aveeno, a Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health brand, to formulate its new Restorative Skin Therapy line to meet the specific needs of patients undergoing chemotherapy. Scientists tested the regimen in 40 patients over several years with the oversight and approval of a hospital review board.
“We were lucky to work with the best and brightest in the oncodermatology field to guide us through the range of skin-related side effects patients can experience when they go through chemotherapy,” says Judith Nebus, Manager, Medical/Clinical Affairs, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health. “We knew, for example, that chemotherapy can impact the skin in various ways, including excessive dryness, flaking, itching and rashes. These side effects can also impact patients’ quality of life, so we made it a point to develop products that can specifically address them.”
For its own part, Aveeno is no stranger to studying chronic skin conditions, from eczema to psoriasis, to create other science-backed product lines for sensitive skin.
“We’re well suited to address these sorts of skin reactions, because we can blend our pharmacological expertise in cancer research with our consumer focus on skincare,” explains Nebus.
While undergoing chemotherapy, washing your body with a gentle cleanser is key.
Dry, cracking skin isn’t just painful for people with cancer—it can have potentially more serious consequences.
“Damaged skin can lead to infection, which can be dangerous for someone on chemotherapy who is immunosuppressed,” Dr. Friedman explains.
“By targeting skin cells, chemotherapy may derail the formation of a normal protective barrier on the skin,” Nebus adds. “As a potential consequence, microbes normally living on the skin’s surface can find their way through the barrier and cause infections.”
First-line therapy usually starts with learning how to cleanse your skin properly so it stays hydrated and not overly stripped or stressed. For example, sticking to short showers or baths using lukewarm (not hot) water, gently patting skin dry after showering, and applying moisturizer while the skin is still moist, says Dr. Friedman.
A gentle soap or cleanser is also advised. Aveeno’s new Restorative Skin Therapy Sulfate-Free Body Wash contains soothing aloe, oat and pro-vitamin B5, “the latter of which acts as a humectant, attracting water to the skin and holding it in,” explains Georgios Stamatas, Ph.D., Research Associate Director and Fellow, Global Consumer R&D, Johnson & Johnson.
As a result, the body wash gently cleanses without overdrying, leaving your skin feeling moisturized, soothed, nourished and softer and smoother. “This means it not only moisturizes, but also helps seal the aloe, oat and other healthy ingredients into your skin,” he adds.
Oats—and the prebiotics within them—can help moisturize and soothe skin impacted by chemotherapy.
After cleansing, a good moisturizer containing the right blend of ingredients is crucial to helping rehydrate parched skin.
Aveeno’s new Restorative Skin Therapy Oat Repairing Cream may be particularly helpful during chemotherapy, because it contains a special prebiotic oat concentrate.
“Oats themselves are prebiotic, which means they can encourage good bacteria to thrive on the skin’s surface,” explains Dr. Stamatas.
Oat extract is rich in avenanthramides, a potent antioxidant that helps quell inflammation.
When your skin is compromised—as when it goes through chemotherapy—some pathogenic bacteria on the skin’s surface may find opportune conditions to proliferate and cause infections. When you apply prebiotics to your skin, the good bacteria thrive, making it hard for pathogens to colonize the skin’s surface. Moreover, you can potentially prevent the conditions that promote infections by repairing the dry, itchy or damaged skin, as well as help build an adequate barrier on the skin.
The Oat Repairing Cream is unique because it contains Aveeno’s highest concentration of prebiotic oat, found in two forms of oat: oat flour and oat extract, explains Dr. Stamatas. The oat flour helps moisturize dry, sensitive skin, while the oat extract helps relieve itching and irritation. Plus, oat extract is rich in avenanthramides, a potent antioxidant that helps quell inflammation.
Research backs this up: A Johnson & Johnson study published in the journal Experimental Dermatology found that oats help boost levels of ceramides—lipids that help form the skin’s barrier and allow it to retain moisture.
If you are experiencing dry and itchy skin, the Restorative Therapy Itch Relief Balm contains pramoxine hydrochloride, an over-the-counter anti-itch ingredient, and pro-vitamin B5.
Skin changes can linger even beyond cancer treatment.
Just as it can take six months to a year for hair to regrow after chemotherapy, it can take up to 12 months for your skin to recover from treatment.
“We did a lot of research to make sure that we were using ingredients that would have clear benefits for patients undergoing chemotherapy—and for consumers to use over time,” Dr. Stamatas says. “Our ingredients had to feel light enough, for example, to not weigh down skin that was already very fragile.”
The good news: Continuing advances in cancer treatments—including targeted therapies, which work by inhibiting certain pathways important for cancer cell growth—have the potential to reduce wear and tear on skin.
But skin will always need some extra TLC during cancer therapy, Dr. Friedman notes. “Most treatments will still damage some skin cells,” he says. “But if you take overall protective steps, like using soothing skincare products, and seeking out a dermatologist for persistent, painful symptoms, it can really help.”