Monday 8 July 2013

Skincare during cancer treatment: Interview with Jennifer Young

More and more people are switching to natural and organic beauty products because they want to use safer ingredients. Yet if you are going through chemo therapy even natural/organic products might not be suitable.

This is a two part interview with Jennifer Young, creator of Defiant Beauty skincare, designed for those affected by cancer.

                                                            Photo courtesy of Jennifer Young

Q:   What has inspired you to create a range specifically for people going through cancer treatment?

A: I was asked to create the range. I met a lady who was working to set up a beauty salon and wig dressers on my local chemo ward. They had been looking for a skincare range to help their clients to deal with the skin issues that result from some chemotherapy regimens and they couldn't find one.
The nurse team have very strict rules about ‘permitted ingredients’ and they won’t allow skincare products for cancer patients that don’t comply with their rules to be sold from the salon on their chemo ward.
At the time I was developing our bespoke skincare range so could (and still can) create something to help to alleviate the symptoms of chemo skin. I met with the lead nurse team from the chemo and radiotherapy wards and they detailed the ingredients that they wouldn’t allow to be in products. I met with some patients and some women that had completed their treatment and got a really clear idea of the kind of product that they needed. I was severely restricted in the type of ingredients that I could use (see below) and, as I make natural skincare, that restricted me further.
I always encourage our clients to ask us for products that they think we should have as we can usually help.

 Q: What would be the best skin care regime to follow and which ingredients are best avoided?

A: Starting with the positive, the same regime as would be suggested to all women wanting to look after their skin – cleanse, tone, serum, moisturise. I have deliberately left out exfoliating as skin can be very sore as a result of treatment and it is best not to do anything harsh to it. As cancer patients find fragrances difficult to deal with during treatment we don’t offer a toner, we suggest splashing the face with water after using a cleansing balm.
Ingredients to avoid are many and varied. This is quite technical so I have separated each category.

Creams and Lotions
Creams and Lotions contain water; they are a mix of oils and water. As these two do not mix naturally and can be a breeding ground for bugs and moulds, many other ingredients such as emulsifiers, pH adjusters, softeners and preservatives have to be added. This means that creams, lotions and any other products that contain water have to have many ingredients.These extras can be ‘natural’ ie derived from plants and are often lovely but the high number of ingredients means that there are extra things that the very sensitive skin of cancer patients can react to. It is for this reason that we don’t have any water based products in the Defiant Beauty Range.

photo courtesy of Jennifer Young

In addition, chemo skin is very dry, oil and butter based products are far more moisturising than a cream or lotion that can be mostly water.
It is very important to avoid phyto-oestrogens (oestrogens that come from plants) when going through treatment for cancer. Phyto-oestrogens, or plant oestrogens, are naturally occurring chemicals that have a structure similar to the female hormone oestrogen. Oils such as borage, avocado, evening primrose and soy are plant oestrogens. Aloe is another natural source of oestrogens
We do not include these oils in our Defiant Beauty as some cancers, particularly breast cancer, are oestrogen positive. About 7 out of 10 breast cancers are oestrogen positive. They contain receptors that allow proteins or hormones to attach to the cancer cells. The hormones cause the cancer cells to grow and divide, resulting in tumour growth. The nurses I worked with described the oestrogens as food for the cancer – no way are they going into my products.
Essential Oils
As I have said, cancer patients can be very sensitive to smell. It is impossible to predict which smells will cause offence and it was for that reason that the oncology nurses asked me to make fragrance-free products.
There is much more to essential oils than we have space for here but, in summary, some essential oils should never be included in products for cancer patients and some are wonderful, providing that they can be tolerated.
Cancer patients are often advised to avoid all vitamin supplements whilst they are going through chemotherapy. The reasons for this are based in biochemistry.Vitamins such as C, E and A are anti-oxidants commonly found in skincare products (as anti-oxidants slow the aging process). We avoid adding them to our products at levels that would be utilised by the skin. We add Vitamin E to Defiant Beauty at a level that will stabilise the oils (prevent them from becoming rancid) but will do no more.

 Q:  One of the biggest appearance changes that I personally associate with cancer is hair loss, is there any way to avoid it?
A: Yes, and many women don’t know and aren’t told. Cooling caps are proven to reduce hair loss in some cases if used at the time of chemotherapy. Cooling caps are a medical device and must be provided by a medical team, be they at home via a private medical provider or by the NHS.
Chemotherapy can also result in nail damage and cooling the nail bed can reduce the damage. Moisturising the nails can also reduce the impact of chemotherapy on the nails.
Q: Are there any simple at home recipes that people could use to make their skin less sensitive?
A: This is the most difficult question. As you can see, there is a lot to consider when recommending products for cancer patients. Skin becomes sensitive as a result of the chemo treatment and as such, could be considered a good sign. If skin were to stop being sensitive patients may begin to worry. It is our approach to accept the sensitivity and create products that patients are less likely to react to (we make no promises as all are unique and react differently to different ingredients). We also aim to soothe the sensitivity, soreness and itchy skin by including ingredients associated with healing as well as those considered suitable for sensitive skin.
If your readers want to try something at home, they could experiment with the nut oils available in the oils section at the supermarket. Nut oils are known for their anti-aging properties and many are heavy moisturising oils. The only oil that I would avoid is peanut oil. Generally, the more expensive the oil, the better it will be.
In the second part of the interview we will be talking make-up. In the meantime, here are a few links if you are looking for more information regarding skincare.


  1. Are there any simple at home recipes that people could use to make their skin less sensitive? This one is very good information for me. Thank you!!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, happy it was informative:)