In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, BITB has interviewed Britta Aragon, a natural beauty expert, cancer survivor and author of When Cancer Hits. A survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 16, she became intensely interested in finding hair, skin and nail products appropriate for people undergoing chemotherapy and radiation when her father underwent an eight year battle with cancer. Even products for sensitive skin were laden with irritating ingredients. As a result, Britta become an epert in safe solutions for those experiencing side effects from chemotherapy, radiation or medication and even for those who experience skin conditions like eczema, sensitivity or chronic dryness. Read on to learn more of Britta’s journey and many of her tips.
What was your greatest challenge going through cancer – both as a patient and then later as a caregiver to your father?
I was just 16 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease – so I didn’t have a clue what to expect, or what that meant. All I knew is that my prized hair would fall out (devastating to a teenager), and that I needed to rest while my friends hung out and had fun. Ignorance is most certainly bliss; I didn’t have a moment of concern that I wouldn’t get better… So when my energy was zapped from chemo and my hair indeed fell out, I shopped for wigs with my mom and saved up all my energy during the week so I could go out on Saturday nights to the mall with my friends. That’s my memory of cancer. I realize I’m lucky.
My father’s experience was entirely different – but I never dreamed he wouldn’t get better since my experience had been thankfully benign by most standards. Unfortunately, I witnessed firsthand the ravages that cancer treatment takes on not just the hair, but skin and nails. My father’s skin was inflamed, fragile and compromised, he suffered from rashes on his face and neck, he had hand and foot syndrome (intense pain in hands and feet), his finger nails were falling off, he could not do normal everyday tasks with his hands as he also suffered from neuropathy.
That was the first time I discovered that not all skincare is created equally – when the expensive brand I bought from the department store claiming a “sensitive skin” formula actually burned his compromised skin. He couldn’t tolerate it. That’s when I started reading labels and learning about ingredient safety.
How does cancer treatment change the skin?
While chemotherapy and radiation kill the malignant cells, they also destroy healthy cells – and that includes the cells responsible for the skin, hair and nails. As a result, the skin becomes highly sensitized, extremely delicate, thinner, dry – and the moisture barrier, which keeps healthy skin hydrated, is damaged.
In damaged skin, irritants, chemicals, and bacteria are much more likely to penetrate, causing dermatitis, allergic reactions, infections and sores. It is so important now than ever to be very careful with what we are applying on our skin and change our routine to a more gentle and tender one, eliminating all the harsh products with acids that can be drying, those with strong fragrances and potentially harmful chemicals.
Some people (men and women not used to a skincare routine) may have to start using products to help nourish and moisturize their skin. Common side effects are a rash-like irritation that resembles acne but it’s not – so applying topical acne medications is not recommended and can actually make it worse and leave you scarred!
Others can be extremely photosensitive from the drugs, needing extra protection from the sun at all times (zinc oxide is the best to use during treatment).
Although these treatments wreak havoc on skin, hair and nails, it’s important to remember that mostly all side effects end when treatment ends.
What are some ingredients people with skin sensitivities should avoid?
No matter what type of compromised skin you may have, you’re more at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals because of a damaged moisture barrier. Since most personal care products and cosmetics contain potentially harmful ingredients, it’s important to always read labels and use only safe, nurturing formulas that will nourish and help repair your skin.
I have created a list of the top 24 ingredients to avoid in personal care products in my website http://cincovidas.com/toxic-truth/ingredients-to-avoid-in-personal-care-products/.
I would start with a few simple basics to avoid:
- Fragrances: Synthetic Perfumes and Fragrances: If a product lists “fragrance” on its ingredient deck, avoid it. Most synthetic fragrances are actually mixtures of many (sometimes over 100) chemicals that can irritate and dry sensitive skin.
- Acids (retinol, salicylic, glycolic): They can be too aggressive on sensitive skin.
- Alcohol, Menthol and Peppermint (or any product with a high content of essential oils): Products with any of these three ingredients can further irritate and dry your skin. Alcohol, because of its fast-evaporation rate, has a reputation for encouraging dryness, so stay away from rubbing alcohol, ethyl alcohol, and SD-alcohol 40. Menthol is found in a lot of shaving creams and is known to be harsh on sensitive skin. As for peppermint, it’s natural, but it’s also powerful.
- Chemical sunscreens, like oxybenzone, benzophenone-3, and octyl methoxycinnamate, have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity and can irritate skin. Non-micronizedzinc oxide is a safer alternative.
Are there ingredients you’ve found that are particularly soothing to skin, or that relieve burning/itching/heat?
I have found in my own experience of caring for my father through his cancer journey that ingredients like aloe, chamomile, calendula, oat extract, shea butter and cucumber are the best to help soothe and cool irritated skin. Always make sure you read labels even if it says “natural” and “organic” on the label. The proof is on the ingredient label on the back.
What are some brands/products you’d recommend to women today undergoing cancer treatment?
I love Kahina 100% Organic Argan Oil, which is a super moisturizer, helps soothe irritation and can be used on hair, skin and nails. I also love RMS Raw Coconut Cream, which is great for removing makeup while moisturizing the driest of skin. It can also be used as a moisturizer to soften dry elbows, hands and feet. The best thing about these products – they both have only one ingredient.