For ages, “Don’t forget to wash your hands before you eat!” was the battle cry of moms everywhere. Thanks to COVID-19, we’re washing our hands All. The. Time. And it’s taking a toll.
Beyond the discomfort of tight skin, cracking cuticles and rough fingertips, overly dry skin can also lead to more worrisome health concerns. So to learn more about hand-washing, how it affects our skin and get some tips for preventing and soothing dryness, we spoke with Dr. Lauren B. Gandhi, a dermatologist at Novant Health Premier Medical Associates, a department of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem.
When to wash your hands?
Rinsing with plain water would remove most visible dirt, but a vigorous soap-and-water scrub or rubbing in a dollop of hand sanitizer are the only ways to remove germs and viruses from our skin, according to Gandhi. As for when we should wash our hands, she recommends we suds up or sanitize:
- Before cooking and eating food.
- Before touching your face.
- Anytime you cough, sneeze or blow your nose.
- After using the bathroom, changing diapers or cleaning up a child or other person who needs help using the toilet.
- After going to the grocery store, pumping gas, using an ATM or any other time you use a high-touch surface in public.
- After sanitizing high-touch surfaces or doing household chores.
- After petting, feeding or picking up after an animal.
Is hot water necessary for washing your hands?
This may surprise you: While hot water feels nice on winter-chilled fingers, it is not necessary for clean hands. Actually, it’s the physical, hand-against-hand friction that removes dirt, bacteria and viruses. Here’s the process Gandhi recommends:
“To get them clean, all you need to do is wet your hands, put some soap on them and scrub them together for about 20 seconds,” Gandhi said. “Make sure to clean between your fingers and under your fingernails if they’re dirty. You don’t need to put your hands back under the water until you’re ready to rinse.”
Next step: Dry your hands, but not all the way. Next, because washing strips protective oils from your skin, you’ll want to apply some moisturizer to protect your slightly damp hands.
Protecting the skin barrier
“Our bodies produce oils that stay on our skin, including our hands, and form a barrier to protect it. These oils even have a little bit of an antibacterial effect,” Gandhi said. “So, washing away this barrier may seem a little counterproductive, but we really need to do it, to remove dirt and germs.”
Leaving skin unprotected after washing, however, can lead to inflammation, infections and other problems, according to Gandhi.
For example, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of hand eczema have risen dramatically. That’s why, in November, the American Academy of Dermatology recommended that the moisturizing be added to the official hand-washing instructions issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The surprising truth about hand sanitizers
Hand sanitizers are everywhere these days. And for good reason — they work.
One study Gandhi recently encountered compared regular hand-washing with hand sanitizers. “It showed that 30 seconds of washing with soap and water can reduce the bacterial count on your skin by 58 percent,” she recalled. “But using an alcohol-based sanitizer reduced the bacterial count by 83 percent.”
To protect yourself and those around you, look for alcohol-based sanitizers containing at least 60% ethanol. And, if you worry that so much alcohol will be damaging to your hands, relax. Several head to head studies have compared sanitizers to soap and water.
The results, Gandhi said, were surprising, even to a dermatologist: Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are actually gentler on the skin than soap. See her tip below for even more post-sanitizing softness.
7 ways to keep your hands (and all your skin) soft and healthy
- Pick a soap, any soap
Liquid and bar soap — which is better? Actually, both are equally good at banishing germs, and neither is more drying than the other. Also, there’s no need to use antibacterial soap — the regular variety is equally good at ridding your hands of dirt, germs and viruses. For extra comfort, look for a soap with added moisturizers.
- Cool down
From head to toe — including hands — hot water is more drying to our skin because it removes more of our natural oils. Gandhi recommends using tepid, not cold, water to keep skin comfortable.
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
Hand creams and lotions work best on slightly damp skin. After washing, rub in a little hand cream before your skin is thoroughly dry. Between washes, you can dampen your hands and apply moisturizer whenever they feel dry. Gandhi says her patients like moisturizers from CeraVe, Cetaphil, Eucerin and DML Forte. (Note: In a medical setting, it’s important to avoid moisturizers containing petroleum, which can create loss of integrity in medical gloves.)
- Give your hand sanitizer a boost
Gandhi recommends following — or even adding a bit of hand cream along with — your hand sanitizer. “Just a small drop of moisturizer is enough to protect your skin,” she said.
- Protect your cuticles
Your cuticles act as a barrier, closing the gap between your skin and your nails. To keep water from seeping in and to prevent infections, avoid pushing your cuticles back. If they’re inflamed, dab on some old-fashioned petroleum jelly (like Vaseline) and massage the cuticles toward your nails to encourage them to grow back where they’re supposed to be.
- Raid your pantry
“I find that my hands get dry when I'm working in the kitchen, especially during the holidays with the extra cooking and dishwashing,” Gandhi said. “I don't want moisturizer in my food, so I moisturize my hands with olive oil, coconut oil or any kind of cooking oil. They really are nice moisturizers!”
- Stick to alcohol on sanitizers
Popular on the internet, home-remedy “sanitizers” like lemon juice, tea tree oil and other such substances are not effective. “They may help clean your hands,” Gandhi said, “but as disinfectants, they simply don’t measure up to alcohol-based sanitizers.”
Using moisturizer, avoiding hot water and protecting your hands with gloves, yet still have red, raw skin? Call your provider, who can help identify problems and offer solutions like a topical steroid cream to help soothe and heal your skin.