Frequent hand-washing may be key to staying healthy, especially now and during cold and flu season, but it can really take a toll on your skin. That goes double in winter, when colder temps and drier air conspire to zap skin of the natural oils that maintain moisture and provide a protective barrier. This can lead to dry, cracked hands.
“People think water is moisturizing, but it’s actually drying — when it evaporates, it reduces skin’s natural oils,” said Dr. Alissa O’Brien, a dermatologist at Water’s Edge Dermatology. “And if you’re using hot water and harsh soap over and over throughout the day, it’s the perfect storm for drying out your skin.”
Soap doesn’t discriminate between germs and the skin’s protective oils; neither does the alcohol in hand sanitizer. With frequent use, both can lead to dryness, irritation and rash-like dermatitis or eczema. They can also lead to cracks in the skin which allow for entry of germs like staph that make you more susceptible to skin infections.
To curb dry, cracked hands while practicing good hand hygiene, Dr. O’Brien offered this advice:
Wash your hands correctly
1. Steer clear of harsh soap. A gentle moisturizing soap (Dr. O’Brien recommends Dove) will get the job done just as well as anti-bacterial soap, which is more drying and hasn’t proven to do a better job at preventing illness than regular soap. Of course, if your dermatologist has prescribed an anti-bacterial soap due to recurrent infections or other special circumstances, keep using it.
2. Wash with lukewarm water. Lukewarm water is as effective as boiling water is at reducing germs. That’s because the goal of hand-washing isn’t to kill germs. “When you wash your hands, the germs get washed off,” Dr. O’Brien explained. “They go down the drain.” After washing, pat your skin dry. No need for vigorous rubbing, which can disrupt your skin barrier, lead to irritation and cause dry, cracked skin.
“The best thing is literally to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize,” said Dr. O’Brien. Moisture after every hand-washing. This will lock in moisture that got into your skin while washing and prevent evaporation that dries out the skin even more. For extra dry skin, apply an ointment at bedtime and then wear a pair of cotton gloves to help seal it in. Ointments can work extra well overnight, when skin naturally loses more water.
Opt for ointment or cream moisturizer
Ointments work better than other types of moisturizers because they penetrate skin better, according to Dr. O’Brien. “That’s why, when we prescribe topicals, we usually pick ointment forms — more medicine gets in that way.” She recommends a product like Aquaphor Healing Ointment or a thin layer of petroleum jelly. “It sounds messy, but it’s extremely moisturizing and your hands are going to love it.”
If an ointment is messier than you prefer, choose a cream moisturizer, which contains more oil than water-based lotions. Cream moisturizers are also more effective at trapping water in the skin and repairing its barrier function. Here are a few brands to try: Cetaphil, CeraVe, Eucerin, Gold Bond and Aveeno. Ingredients to search out include petrolatum and ceramides. Petrolatum helps block water loss from your skin; Ceramides are a type of lipid (fat) that helps form your skin’s barrier and increase hydration. Ceramides are a key ingredient in CeraVe products.
Be sure to stay away from lotions and moisturizers with fragrances and dyes. “Some dyes can irritate dry skin, so generally, I wouldn’t get the pink frilly one,” said Dr. O’Brien.
Choose the right hand sanitizer
Washing your hands is your best bet at removing all types of germs — even better than hand sanitizer. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand sanitizers don’t kill the stomach bug or a type of parasite that causes severe diarrhea. However, hand sanitizer is far better than nothing when you don’t have access to soap and water. If using a hand sanitizer, choose one that contains at least 60 percent alcohol and is enriched with an emollient like glycerin or vitamin E to help counteract the drying effect.
If your hands are frequently immersed in water, such as when washing dishes or washing your car, wearing rubber or latex gloves can prevent the water from stripping away your skin’s oils. Gloves lined in cotton may be more comfortable on dry skin and are easier to put on and take off. Gloves are also recommended if you work with chemicals or plants, especially if you have sensitive skin that is prone to dryness.
Remember the sunscreen
It won’t be your main line of defense against dry, cracked hands, but because the sun can dry out your skin, sunscreen can help prevent further parching. “The sun not only makes dermatitis worse, but skin will be more prone to burning if it’s already irritated,” said Dr. O’Brien. She likes CeraVe AM, a moisturizer with an SPF 30.
Article Written By: Karyn Repinski is a Brooklyn, NY-based award-winning health and beauty writer.
Medical Review By: Ted Schiff, MD