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How to Avoid Dry, Chapped Skin From Hand-Washing

woman putting lotion on her hands
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD - Blogs
By Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MDBoard-certified dermatologistMarch 25, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on our population’s health, work, travel, sports, social lives, and even toilet paper supply. It’s probably also causing a lot of damage to your hands - as a result of the frequent hand-washing that’s necessary to keep us healthy and prevent the spread of the virus. And although a case of dry hands isn't the biggest health concern on anyone’s mind right now, it makes sense to protect the skin’s barrier, since cracked or chapped hands can actually make the skin more susceptible to various types of infection.

Dermatologists regularly see hand dermatitis - red, rashy, itchy, flaky, or dry hands - in healthcare and restaurant workers, who must cleanse their hands numerous times daily. Now almost anyone can be susceptible to hand rashes from frequent sudsing, application of stingy hand sanitizers, and exposure to wipes and solutions that we may use to clean handles, knobs, keyboards, and other surfaces.

So, what can we do to soothe our hardworking hands?

Turn down the water temperature. You don’t need to scald your skin to clean it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the temperature of the water doesn’t impact germ removal. Hot water is more drying than warm water, so it makes sense to reduce the temperature to a comfortable level.

Stock mild cleansers in your bathroom. A cleanser doesn’t need to be antibacterial or industrial-strength to clean skin and remove dirt, bacteria, and yes, viruses. Many gentle cleansers (even if they are labelled for the face or body) are perfectly suitable for hands, too - especially if they are fragrance-free and labelled with words like nourishing, gentle, hydrating, or sensitive. Skin-friendly options include Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, Dove Unscented Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar, La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Facial Cleanser, Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser, CeraVe Hydrating Body Wash, L’Occitane Shea Butter Ultra Rich Hand Wash, Bioderma Sensibio Foaming Gel, and Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Face Cleanser.

Keep hand cream by the sink. A quick layer of a fragrance-free cream or lotion applied right after cleansing admittedly may not last very long, since it will be washed away the next time we cleanse. But it can help to soothe and protect skin temporarily and is better than nothing.

Protect skin from water and chemicals when you can. Dishwashing-style gloves worn during wet work or home cleaning can help to reduce extra hand irritation and dryness.

Slather up at bedtime. Nighttime may be the only time we’re not hand-washing incessantly, so it makes sense to quench and hydrate hands as a last step before bed. Cleanse gently, and while the hands are still damp and warm, coat them with a liberal layer of a plain, thick, fragrance-free cream or ointment. (Lighter lotions, serums, and oils may not be enough to heal dry, chapped hands.). Dermatologist favorites include Aquaphor Healing Ointment, purified white petroleum jelly, Replenix Moisturizing & Protective Hand Cream, Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream, La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm, Aveeno Cracked Skin Relief CICA Balm, or Skinfix Eczema Hand Repair Cream. A pair of gloves worn on top can help the moisturizer quench and penetrate even better.

Fight itch. When you feel like clawing at your skin, instead consider over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment, a drugstore cream containing pramoxine (such as Cerave Itch Relief Moisturizing Cream), or a moisturizer with a cooling effect (such as Sarna Lotion or Gold Bond Intensive Relief Anti-Itch Lotion; these work best for itch if you store them in the fridge).

Call your dermatologist. She may prescribe a cream or ointment to soothe your dry, uncomfortable hands. These may include a prescription topical steroid (such as clobetasol or betamethasone) or a nonsteroid medicine, such as pimecrolimus (Elidel cream), tacrolimus (Protopic ointment), or crisaborole ointment (Eucrisa). And keep in mind, there are many other causes of hand rashes that may not be the result of frequent cleansing. These include skin allergies (allergic contact dermatitis), eczema, psoriasis, nerve injury or dysfunction, underlying medical conditions, medication reactions, and infections (including fungus, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, syphilis, herpes, or tiny mites called scabies). If your rash doesn’t improve, a board-certified dermatologist can help you get your hands back on track.

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About the Author
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD

Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, is a Stanford-trained dermatologist, former Glamour beauty editor, and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, Women’s Health, and other publications. She has made many television appearances and co-hosted The Dermatology Show on Sirius-XM throughout medical school. Her personal skincare blog can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

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