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Cancer Confidence Kit: Hand and Nail Care

Looking after your hands and nails is particularly important during and after chemotherapy treatment because your skin becomes dryer and more delicate and your nails become weaker and more prone to splitting.  Here, cancer support charity, Look Good Feel Better, explain how to look after them during cancer treatment.

You probably won’t notice the changes straight away, but after a few weeks you may find that your nails become thinner and more brittle; they may also look slightly discoloured or have white patches where the nails have ‘lifted’ slightly away from the skin. If nails do lift, the skin beneath will be very sensitive and vulnerable to infection, so it is particularly important to keep hands clean and in good shape after treatment. The good news is that these changes are only temporary, and after a few months things will be back to normal.  Meanwhile, there are plenty of things that you can do to reduce the impact of these changes. Professional nail technician Marian Newman has some hot tips for looking after your hands:


  • Wear gloves when doing housework or dirty jobs: if you are allergic to latex, ask your pharmacist for Nitryl gloves, or use a good barrier cream.
  • Keep hand cream at the ready and try to apply it each time you wash your hands. Most importantly, moisturise hands well at night-time, but don’t wear gloves over the top - as sometimes advised - as this can provide a breeding ground for infection.
  • Apply a cuticle oil to the base of each nail just before bed; the oil will ease the cuticle away from the nail and help to prevent dry skin from cracking.
  • Dab tea tree oil (a natural antiseptic) at the top edge of your finger and toe nails - where the tip of your finger or toe meets your nail - particularly if they are showing signs of lifting. If you don’t like tea tree oil, ask your pharmacist or doctor for alternative products.
  • Use nail polish to keep your nails strong and protected from the environment; if you don’t like colour, a clear polish with a colour enhancer is a good alternative and can help to mask discolouration.
  • Use an oily (acetone-free) remover to take off polish and never rub. Hold a cotton pad soaked in remover over the nail for a couple of seconds to remove polish and then sweep it off in one stroke.
  • Alert your doctor to any signs of inflammation or infection.
  • Remember your feet! Toenails react in the same way as fingernails and also need extra TLC during and after treatment.


  • Buff nail ridges during treatment and for several months afterwards; the nails will be too thin and buffing will weaken them even further.
  • Snip the skin around your cuticles; the skin is too delicate and you may increase the risk of painful ‘snagging’.
  • Cut your fingernails! Use a soft non-metallic nail file once a week to gently take the edge off the nails. Work in one direction from the side to the middle, not repeatedly backwards and forwards, to miminise stress on the nails.
  • Wear stick-on nails or acrylics until your nails are back to normal.

Tip: Nails are 10 times more absorbent than skin. They need extra care and protection after treatment to keep them healthy as well as looking good.

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