Hair/Skin/Nails Overview

Look Better, Feel Better. One Step at a Time

It is common for cancer-related treatments to compromise the quality of our hair, skin and nails. Taking steps to improve their condition and appearance makes us look healthier and can help us feel more vibrant and confident.

What is cancer-related damage to hair, skin and nails?

Many of us see changes in our hair, skin and nails from cancer treatment. Common side effects include:

Hair change

  • Hair loss on scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows or other body parts
  • Thinning or graying of hair
  • Dry hair

Skin changes

  • Burns from radiation
  • Oral ulcers from chemotherapy
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Blisters or sores on palms, knuckles or soles of your feet
  • Dry, itchy or dull-looking skin or rashes

Nail changes

  • Weak, dry, brittle nails
  • Nails that split, lift off or develop ridges
  • Swollen, red and painful sores around nail beds

What causes hair, skin and nail damage?

There are a few reasons hair, skin and nails can get damaged from cancer treatment.

  • According to the American Cancer Society, many cancer treatments—including chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy and stem cell transplants—work by killing any rapidly-dividing cells in the body (like cancer cells). Unfortunately, this means normal cells that regenerate quickly, like hair follicles, skin cells and nails, may also be affected.
  • Some chemotherapies attack specific proteins, which tumors need to form blood supplies. But this can affect our hands and feet, which also rely on small blood vessels.
  • Many hormone suppression therapies slow or stop the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors by blocking our body’s ability to produce hormones like estrogen or progesterone. But suppressing them can cause hair thinning, dry skin and vaginal dryness because these hormones help our bodies produce collagen and oils.

Why is addressing hair, skin and nail damage important?

We tend to equate thick or shiny hair, long nails and soft skin to youth and vitality. When they’re damaged, they become visual cues that we’re vulnerable or ill. They also remind us of the possibility of a foreshortened future. Because outward physical deterioration can make us feel vulnerable, minimizing outward signs of illness can help with our mental health.

What can we do about hair, skin and nail damage?

Luckily, most hair, skin and nail side effects are temporary. They usually reverse themselves after treatment ends. In the meantime, we have strategies to help you manage them.

  1.  Talk therapy. Hair, skin and nail damage can take a toll on our body image. If you feel persistent or debilitating emotional distress about the way you look, consider talk therapy. Talk therapy is also a good idea if a mental health concern from the past, like an eating disorder, resurfaces. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that’s scientifically supported for helping with this kind of emotional   distress. CBT is an umbrella term for many variations of short-term therapy that focus on helping you reframe your thinking to help you cope.
  2. Support groups. Many of us find relief in support groups. They’re a safe place to talk about concerns you may not be comfortable sharing with friends and family. Simply knowing others face similar problems can help us feel less alone. In groups, we also learn what worked for others. If you’re interested in a support group (not everyone is and that’s OK), check with your hospital medical team. They may know local groups for people with cancer.

Online support communities can also be a valuable source of advice and comfort. We started a Facebook community that may help as a first step.

For any hair, skin or nail problems

  1. Stay hydrated. Fill up three, 8 oz. glasses or bottles of water each morning and place them strategically around your home or office. Try to drink them all before the end of the day. At meals, drink two glasses of water (at a minimum).
  2. Limit alcohol and caffeine. They’re drying and worsen hair, skin, nail and mouth problems. Quit them—or at least cut way back.
  3. Eat the rainbow. Brightly-colored vegetables and fruits give our bodies the natural nutritional support they need for healthy hair, skin and nails.
  4. Try a full-spectrum, high-quality beauty supplement. It can play offense and defense against damage.

How can friends, family and colleagues help?

There’s a lot you can do to help your friend or loved one cope with hair, skin and nail problems.

  1. Offer to join your friend if she decides to cut her hair, try on wigs or shop for scarves. These can be emotional events. Social support can be a huge help.
  2. If your friend has hair that’s growing in, treat her to a haircut with a premium stylist. The transition from bald to “normal” hair is challenging. A special haircut can make a difference.
  3. Create or send a care package filled with gentle, non-toxic, alcohol-free haircare or health and beauty products.
  4. If your friend’s healthcare team recommends certain products or treatments for hair, skin or nail damage, find the products or go with your friend to buy them.
  5. Treat your friend or family member to a facial or hand massage with organic skincare products.
  6. Help your friend stay hydrated. Make or buy flavored waters, teas or similar drinks. Buy an attractive new pitcher, water purifier, or instant-on hot water kettle—anything to make hydration more appealing.
  7. If your friend is open to connecting with other people who are coping with cancer and may be dealing with similar side effects, offer to find support groups.
  8. Be ready to listen. Your loved one may want to talk about problems with body image or emotional distress from side effects. Try not to minimize his or her concerns. Before sharing your ideas, ask if it’s OK and whether it would be helpful.

Care for your body to calm your mind

When life feels challenging, sometimes simple physical self-care can help us feel more optimistic and nourished. But don’t feel pressured to meet the expectations of others. If pampering and new beauty routines help, great. If they don’t, skip it! Click here if you are interested in for more tips on hair loss, skin vitality and nail problems.


Tammy Phillip has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Ohio State and is a former Clinical Research Psycho-Oncology Fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Lisa Lefebvre is the Founder of Mend After Cancer. She has experience recovering from 8 cancer-related surgeries, chemotherapy treatments, radiation protocols and hormone suppression therapy.

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