With health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), encouraging people to frequently sanitize and wash their hands to stop the spread of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, our hands have taken a real beating. While it’s crucial to follow these hand hygiene practices as a precautionary measure, doing it the right way is just as important.
What happens when you clean your hands too often?
“Excessive exposure to water can irritate your skin, we see this often in people who frequently have wet hands throughout the day, such as hairstylists. Add to that, a harsh soap or alcohol, and you increase the risk of dryness and hand eczema (aka hand dermatitis),” tells Dr. Heidi Goodarzi, California-based board-certified dermatologist and head of Juvive Women’s and Pediatric Dermatology.
“The outer layer of our skin or the epidermis acts as a protective barrier from the outside while maintaining the natural moisture in the skin. The skin barrier can be impaired while scrubbing the hands with soap as it removes both unwanted oil and germs as well as natural oils in the skin,” explains Dr. Katie Beleznay, a board-certified dermatologist in both the U.S. and Canada. “During winter months, with cold and less humid weather, dryness can be even worse,” she adds.
How to tell if you have handwashing-induced dermatitis?
Anything that irritates your skin can cause hand dermatitis, be it harsh soap, hot water or an alcohol-based sanitizer. “Because they look similar, hand eczema can easily be mistaken for dry skin. However, unlike dry skin, hand eczema will not go away with just moisturizers,” Dr. Goodarzi points out.
“Hand eczema can first present as dry, chapped skin, followed by patches of red, scaly, irritated, and inflamed skin,” explains the skin specialist. “People may experience itching or burning on the area. In severe cases, hand eczema will lead to deep cracks, that may bleed, become painful or even get infected,” adds Dr. Goodarzi.
Hand eczema is bad from November to March so you should anticipate it and can prevent it by generously moisturizing your skin, notes Dr. Ellen Marmur, New York-based dermatologist and founder of Marmur Medical.
So, how can you keep your hands clean as well as healthy?
To keep your hands clean without wreaking havoc on your skin, follow these safe hand hygiene and hand care practices that dermatologists swear by:
- Use lukewarm water. Wash your hands with warm water instead of hot water, suggests Dr. Beleznay. Repeatedly washing hands with hot water can dry out and irritate your skin. Also, after washing your hands, pat them dry instead of rubbing vigorously, suggests the skincare expert.
- Moisturize immediately. Apply moisturizer immediately after washing your hands while they are still damp to help seal the moisture in, suggests Dr. Goodarzi. “I like to place a moisturizer next to every sink in our house and in my office to facilitate this habit for everyone,” tells the dermatologist.
- Choose the right product. Dr. Beleznay recommends using fragrance-free skincare products as they are less likely to cause irritation. “Use moisturizers that are in ointment or cream form because the thicker the moisturizer, the more effective it is,” notes Dr. Goodarzi. “Petroleum jelly like Vaseline is a great option for sealing in moisture,” says Dr. Beleznay. She also recommends La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Hand Cream. While Dr. Marmur recommends Aveeno Skin Relief Hand Cream with Soothing Oat and Rich Emollients. Both Dr. Goodarzi and Dr. Beleznay also recommend Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream and CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream.
- Don’t overuse hand sanitizer. “Use hand sanitizer only when soap and water aren’t available,” tells Dr. Goodarzi. The CDC recommends using hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. These are drying, so apply moisturizer as soon as your hands dry, she suggests. Dr. Beleznay recommends carrying a travel-size bottle of a hydrating cream or lotion in your bag for easy access.
- Wear task-appropriate gloves when coming in contact with water or chemicals. Dr. Goodarzi recommends wearing gloves when you’re doing chores such as dishwashing, house cleaning, gardening, etc. In addition, “wear mittens outside to protect your hands from cold weather as cold air can be drying,” she says.
- Consult a dermatologist. If you have hand eczema, always see a board-certified dermatologist at the earliest convenience, suggests Dr. Marmur. Also, “if eczema gets bad, I would recommend lathering the hands with a thick ointment such as Aquaphor before going to sleep and wearing breathable cotton gloves to lock in the moisture and keep the Aquaphor from getting all over your bed,” says Dr. Marmur.