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What Is Topical Chemotherapy? What You Should Know About Chemotherapy Cream For Treating Skin Cancer

Chemotherapy cream is used to kill cancer cells present on the surface of the skin or near it. This can be an effective alternative to performing surgery; however, it is viable only for specific types of skin cancer. The use of chemotherapy cream is one of the anticancer treatments, which is directly applied to the surface of the skin and it is known as topical chemotherapy (1).

Topical chemotherapy helps in destroying the cancer cells present in the skin. This form of treatment is commonly used for treatment of skin cancer and precancerous lesions that affect the upper most layers of the skin.

In this article we will discuss how topical chemotherapy works, what are its potential effectiveness and side effects.

What is Chemotherapy Cream?

Chemotherapy cream is a topical treatment for cancer which is applied directly onto the skin. After its application, the cancer cells present on the skin or near the surface of the skin are destroyed.

However, chemotherapy cream doesn’t reach the cancer cells that are present in the deeper layers of skin or other parts of the body. This kind of treatment is referred to as localized treatment because of its nature in treating the cancer cells on the top layers of the skin.

Topical fluorouracil is the most commonly prescribed chemotherapy cream and it is also known as 5-fluorouracil (5FU) and is available as different brand-name drugs, such as: Tolak, Carac, Fluoroplex and Efudex.

Other topical drugs that are used for treating skin cancer are:

Imiquimod is a cream, which eliminates cancer by increasing the immune response of the body.

Tirbanibulin is a chemotherapy ointment which can be used on the scalp or face.

Diclofenac is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory gel prescribed for relief from pain and inflammation.

All these medications are prescription based and your doctor is the best person to decide which treatment options is right for your skin cancer.

What are the uses of Chemotherapy Cream?

Chemotherapy cream is commonly used to treat actinic keratosis, which are precancerous skin growths. Actinic keratosis is formed on the areas of the skin that are exposed to the sun, such as the hands, face, scalp or chest. This condition is more commonly seen in individuals having lighter skin tones.

Additional to chemotherapy cream, a drug known as calcipotriene is also prescribed. It is a synthetic form of vitamin D, which helps in treating actinic keratosis and helps in reducing the duration of treatment.

Chemotherapy cream is also used for treating superficial skin cancer, which means that it only affects the surface of the skin and has not spread to the deeper layers of the skin or other parts of the body.

Superficial basal cell carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer treated with chemotherapy cream. Some patients can also be prescribed certain topical chemotherapy medications for treating other types of cancer, such as Bowen disease.

Other than chemotherapy cream, there are other localized treatments used for actinic keratosis or superficial skin cancer, such as: photodynamic therapy, cryosurgery, chemical peeling and laser therapy.

What is the Application of Chemotherapy Cream?

The doctor will direct you on how to apply the chemotherapy cream at home by you. Always follow your doctor’s specific instructions so as to ensure the application of chemotherapy cream in the right manner without it causing any skin irritation.

The generally instructions of applying this cream are:

Always wash your hands with water and soap. Wear gloves before taking the cream and apply it with your gloved finger or using a nonmetal applicator. Gently rub or pat in the cream to the skin till it disappears. Remove and dispose the gloves and wash your hands again.

Avoid applying the chemotherapy cream near the eyes, mouth or nose. Do not apply bandage to the skin unless your doctor says so.

The frequency and duration of the chemotherapy cream application depends on the type of medication used and the skin cancer.

Does Chemotherapy Cream Have Any Side Effects?

Chemotherapy cream can cause some minor dryness, pain or soreness at the site of application.

Other potential side effects can include: a burning sensation, swelling, crustiness, itchiness, skin color change, rash and irritation.

Some of the serious side effects of chemotherapy cream are: vomiting, bloody diarrhea, chills, fever and abdominal pain or acute discolored skin rash.

Consult your doctor if there are any severe side effects or if they do not subside.

How Does The Skin Look Like After Applying Chemotherapy Cream?

After applying the chemotherapy cream, the skin can look inflamed and red. The site of application can be sore and there can be fluid leakage. Always protect your skin from the sun during the healing process as sun exposure can worsen the inflammation.

Always consult your doctor if there are any severe, concerning or prolonged side effects. In such cases, they will halt or stop the treatment. A steroid cream can be prescribed to alleviate the inflammation. The skin should completely heal in one to two months.

How Effective Is Chemotherapy Cream? What Does The Research Say?

Topical chemotherapy can be effective for treating precancerous lesions like actinic keratosis. It is also effective for some types of superficial skin cancers; however, there is some research which indicates some drawbacks.

According to the current research:

A study from 2015 showed that a single course of 5FU was effective in decreasing actinic keratosis for more than a couple of years (2).

Another study from 2016 showed that a combination of topical calcipotriol and 5-fluorouracil helps in effectively decreasing or eliminating actinic keratosis (3).

A research review from 2013 assessed the use of topical chemotherapy for non-melanoma skin cancer. The cure rates for 5-fluorouracil was around 61 to 92%; and with imiquimod they were in the range of 65 to 100%. (4)

A study from 2017 compared the effectiveness of 5-fluorouracil and imiquimod for treatment of superficial basal cell carcinoma. After taking the treatment, the chances of tumor-free survival were around 70% for patients who were treated with 5-fluorouracil and around 80% for those treated with imiquimod.

A review from 2021 showed that 5-fluorouracil was the most effective when it is used in combination with other anticancer treatments. However, the use of chemotherapy can lead to drug resistance to 5-fluorouracil thus limiting its effectiveness. Studies are going on with regards to how to overcome this drug resistance.


Chemotherapy cream or topical chemotherapy is an anticancer medication that is directly applied to the skin. It can cause minor discoloration and pain; however, these side effects will subside as the skin heals. The standard first-line skin cancer treatment is often surgery; however, topical chemotherapy is an effective option for treating early superficial skin cancer or precancerous growths.

Effective treatment for skin cancer needs different options, such as chemotherapy, surgery and localized treatments like topical chemotherapy. Discuss with your doctor regarding the best treatment options and follow them as the doctor guides you.


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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:May 16, 2024

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