Skin reactions and radiation

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Skin reactions are a common side effect of radiation therapy. Learn tips to help you manage skin reactions and what you should avoid.

Key points

  • Radiation therapy can cause a skin reaction that looks like a sunburn and may become itchy, sore or swollen.
  • Some skin care products can make the irritation worse so it is important to talk to your health-care team before putting anything on your skin, especially in the treatment area.
  • Avoid the sun whenever possible and cover up if you do need to go outside. Ask your health-care team before trying any sunscreen on your skin to avoid irritation.

A skin reaction that is like a sunburn is a common side effect of radiation therapy. How much you react often depends on your skin and the area being treated. Your skin may become itchy or sore. Pale skin may turn red, dark skin may look darker. You may also experience swelling in the radiation area. Skin reactions usually go away within a few months of finishing treatment.

Your health-care team will monitor your skin during your treatment. Be sure to let them know if you notice any changes.


Some skin care products can make your skin irritation worse or can interfere with how well radiation works. Be sure to talk to your health-care team before you put anything on the skin in your treatment area!

Here are some tips for caring for your skin while you’re having radiation.

  • Wash the treatment area with lukewarm water and gently pat it dry with a soft towel. Rubbing can bother the skin.
  • Soaps, powders, scented lotions or perfumes can irritate your skin. If your skin is dry ask your radiation therapy team to recommend a gentle lotion.
  • Wear clothing that is comfortable and made of soft fabric. Avoid wearing tight clothes over your treatment area. Also avoid things that may rub such as jewellery and shoulder straps, or things that stick such as adhesive (sticky) bandages.
  • Avoid the sun! Radiation makes your skin more sensitive to the sun for about a year after you finish treatment. If you’re going outside, the best option is to cover up with a hat or light clothing. Ask your doctor about sunscreen use before trying any on your skin.
  • You will likely lose the hair that grew in your treatment area. This may or may not grow back.

Skin changes can affect how you feel about yourself and your body. You’ll learn more about ways to handle these feelings in the section on self-image.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019