Putting Your Best Face Forward

What to look out for in your cosmetics/skin care products

You’re getting ready for treatment and you’re trying to do everything you can to make sure your experience is positive, productive and proactive. But let’s face it, healing journeys are always easier when we look and feel better.

Which is why this is a good time to take a look at what you are putting on your skin, both face and body.

Chemotherapy and radiation may result in new skin sensitivities and changes during and after treatment. Common occurrences include dryness, itchiness and sometimes altered skin tone. It’s a good idea to discuss any changes with your doctor to ensure your skin stays its healthiest throughout your experience.

At the same time, you can be proactive about how to minimize skin changes and discomfort.

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Back to Basics

Start with as clean and natural an approach as possible. Ginny Riordan, a licensed esthetician in Buffalo, NY, who was successfully treated for uterine cancer at Roswell five years ago, recommends using products that are organic, with no synthetic colors, preservatives or fragrances to avoid irritation that might occur. “My holistic perspective is to follow my farm-raised Irish grandmother’s advice: she ate only Breyer’s vanilla ice cream because it had just four ingredients - milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla - and she understood them all. When asked by clients, I share that advice. Read the ingredient listing and make your judgement accordingly.”

It doesn’t take much digging to learn that many of the ingredients in cosmetics and skin care products have potentially harmful effects. These products may include industrial chemicals, carcinogens, pesticides, hormone disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers and surfactants. During treatment, skin can become more sensitive, and products normally tolerated may cause irritation, so it’s best to use gentle, natural, hypoallergenic products when possible.

Reactions to cosmetics and skin treatments will vary from patient to patient, says Stephanie D’Amico, Program Manager, Mission Delivery, Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society, Inc. “When we are asked by a patient about such things we strongly encourage them speak one-on-one with their health care team to get the best advice and guidance suited for their individual needs.”

Check the Labels

Consider researching your cosmetic and skin products in the same way you might check food labels for unhealthy ingredients. The following list includes harmful chemicals that should be avoided if possible:

BHA and BHT: Used mainly in moisturizers and makeup as preservatives. Contains suspected endocrine disruptors.

Coal tar dyes: This known carcinogen is found in cosmetics, shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.

DEA-related ingredients: Typically found in creamy and foaming products, such as moisturizers and shampoos.

Dibutyl phthalate: Used as a plasticizer in some nail care products. Suspected endocrine disrupter and reproductive toxicant.

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: These are used in a variety of cosmetics and may be listed as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine and quarternium-15.

Parabens: These widely used preservatives possess estrogen-mimicking properties that are associated with increased risk of breast cancer. Parabens are found in makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos and facial cleansers.

Parfum: also listed as Fragrance. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential harmful effects on the reproductive system.

Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol is classified as a skin irritant and penetrator. It can be found in moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup products, conditioners, shampoo and hair sprays.

Phthalates: This group of chemicals is used in deodorants, perfumes/colognes, hair sprays and moisturizers. Look out for dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray.

Sodium laureth sulfate: Known to irritate skin, lung, and eyes, SLS’s are found in more than 90% of personal care and cleaning products, including shampoos, cleansers, bubble bath and body wash. Also found in mascara and acne treatment.

Synthetic colors: Avoid any products that include FD&C or D&C, which represent artificial colors, and may irritate skin.

Sunscreen chemicals: Common names include benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate and ethoxycinnmate.

It may be unrealistic to avoid every single synthetic chemical, but with some label detective work you can significantly decrease the amount of toxins entering your body. Find a few safe, good quality products that work for you and minimize irritation. When considering new products, talk to your doctor or dermatologist who may be able to provide you with samples to try before you invest in full sizes.

Learn from the Experts

Finally, don’t forget there is support available. The American Cancer Society's Look Good, Feel Better program at Roswell Park helps by offering a non-medical, brand-neutral program that teaches beauty techniques to help manage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. In the United States, more than 900,000 women have participated in the program, which now offers 15,400 group workshops nationwide in more than 2,500 locations.

To register for the Look Good, Feel Better program at Roswell call 1 (800) ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345). You can also learn more, including information about programs, classes, and make-up demonstrations at LookGoodFeelBetter.org.

Homemade Moisturizer

For those who like to make their own products, try this simple homemade moisturizer – easy, safe and soothing! 


  • 1/2 cup coconut oil, organic if possible. Coconut oil has anti-aging properties, is very moisturizing and contains antifungal, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
  • 1 teaspoon liquid vitamin E. Vitamin E is known to be helpful at reducing scar tissue, acne and skin blemishes.
  • 12 drops lavender essential oil. Lavender oil is a well-known antioxidant that helps rid skin of free radicals and has the added bonus of a relaxing scent for most.

To Make:
Melt the coconut oil by placing the jar into a bowl of hot water. Mix in the Vitamin E and Lavender, and let set in a covered jar.