Wear & Tear: Restoring Dry, Cracked Hands During a Health Crisis
“Love on Top”, “Truth Hurts”, and “Jolene”: what do these three songs have in common?
For starters, all three can, should be, found on any good power-playlist, let’s get that right.
Lately though, they’ve also become just a few of our go-to songs to sing while washing our hands - btw, dancing along totally counts as a home workout in our book.
If you haven’t heard, belting out at least 20 seconds of your favorite tune while scrubbing is a fun technique that some people have adopted to keep track of time before they rinse. If you’re curious, just throw on one of these classics during your next disinfecting sesh and try it for yourself!
Yes, consistent hand washing & sanitizing has all but dominated recent conversations involving proper hygiene techniques, and for good reason: according to the CDC’s website, washing your hands for at least 20 seconds can reduce your risk of respiratory infections by 16% (1). Considering COVID-19’s devastating impact on our lung function, this seemingly simple practice has quickly become a lifesaving must.
There are a few minor setbacks to all of this extra cleansing, though: namely, the appearance of dry, stripped, or cracked hands due to excessive washing & sanitizing. On top of that, if you’re already dealing with eczema or another skin condition, your chances of experiencing these symptoms are even greater. With the extreme discomfort these ailments cause, some of us are left pondering whether staying healthy and compliant is worth the agony of another wash (spoiler alert: it is).
Rest assured though, we feel your pain & desire for sweet, sweet relief, which is why we’re dedicating this post to all things HAND HEALTH! <3
Between work, play, and caring for another, you may feel like you’ve got the whole world in your hands; we’re just here to help make sure that they’re healthy enough to do so.
The skin you’re in: a crash course
Simply put, your skin barrier is essential to human life (2), so understanding its function is crucial to understanding how to protect it.
Externally, the main purpose of the skin barrier is to protect your body from infections, harmful chemicals and allergens. Internally, it aids in water retention (2).
When your hands become irritated from excessive washing, it’s because you’ve stripped the protein from your epidermis (aka top skin layer), hence the appearance of redness and sensitivity to touch.
This is where the aforementioned dryness, itching, cracking and bleeding comes into play, which is only made worse by continued scrubbing with soap & water.
This is referred to as irritant contact dermatitis, a common type of flare-up found especially among nurses (3).
Does this describe your current experience? Hang tight for a moment, as we’ll outline a few methods to help you cope during the healing process.
Another cause (although rare) is due to an allergic reaction to your soap’s ingredients - in particular, perfumes or chemicals. With similar symptoms, this can be a bit harder to spot and is referred to as allergic contact dermatitis. If you suspect allergies are the culprit for your fiery inflammation, you’ll want to consult a dermatologist before exploring remedies to avoid exacerbating your symptoms.
Depending on your experience, different approaches should be taken to repair damaged skin; understanding where it stems from can help you find effective relief a lot quicker.
Washing vs. Sanitizing Your Hands
Although both serve their purpose, there are certain advantages to sanitizing over washing. For instance, studies have suggested that healthcare workers should use an alcohol-based hand rub/sanitizer as a safer, more effective practice than constant hand washing. By lessening your contact with soap & water, this method can help prevent irritant contact dermatitis before it has a chance to develop (4).
Even so, the same study suggests that hand washing is still necessary if your hands are visibly soiled or contaminated, and we agree; you should still follow the CDC’s recommendation for hand washing protocol. However, if you’re experiencing irritation, or notice your hands beginning to dry out, switching to an alcohol-based sanitizer on occasion may be useful for you.
So, what can you do if your skin is already damaged but you still need to scrub?
First, you’ll want to make sure you’re using a mild, perfume-free soap, as fragrances can be a major irritant for sensitive skin. Then, gently wash and dry your hands, but only when you need to (like after using the restroom).
If you do choose to sanitize as well, do so at your own risk: alcohol can cause a burning sensation on pre-irritated skin. After spot checking, if the pain is minimal or non-existent, feel free to sanitize instead of wash. Again, this is only if your hands aren’t visibly dirty, so use common sense!
How to Keep Hands Moisturized & Dewy
Because our hands are getting so much extra attention these days, the likelihood of dry skin in this area is particularly high, made all the more likely with every rinse of soap and water.
Luckily, when applied correctly, lotions & creams can act as a secret weapon to combat skin irritation by helping to protect your skin barrier. Remember the phrase “a little bit goes a long way”? Go ahead and toss that notion aside here, because you’ll need to lather up frequently to offset constant cleansing (and to fully enjoy the soothing, moisturizing effects).
If you’re on the market for a new salve, look for a fragrance-free option that contains ingredients like linoleic or water-soluble amino acids, which both aid in hydration and repair (5). Brands like Lubriderm are popular in the healthcare community if you need a place to start!
After washing your hands, make sure they are completely dry before dispensing any lotion onto your skin. When sanitizing, rub it all in, then apply moisturizer; lotion may compromise the antimicrobial properties of the sanitizer if used at the same time (6).
Overall, the best practice is to moisturize every chance you get using a hydrating lotion or cream - try doing so after every hand wash and whenever you feel dry throughout the day.
Overnight masks: not just for your face.
Sleeping while trying to ignore itchy, irritated skin is… well, irritating. You’re also more likely to scratch yourself in your sleep, which only makes matters worse for you in the morning. The trick here is to apply lotion to your hands before bed and wear cotton gloves on top while you get some shut-eye. Not only does this keep your sheets clean and the lotion on your hands, it also acts as a barrier to block attempted scratching throughout the night. Sleeping with gloves on may take some getting used to, but its potential to fast-track healing is worth the awkward adjustment.
Patience is a virtue, but…
We know it can be tough to sit and wait for your hands to heal, especially when you’re dealing with extreme discomfort and pain. Despite that, there are still a few little things you can do for yourself to help speed up the process:
Avoid extra water exposure to prevent dry hands.
Besides washing your hands, try to avoid contact with water unless absolutely necessary. Sure, that might mean leaving a few extra dishes in the sink, but it gives your poor paws a much-needed break and provides an opportunity to restore the proteins in your epidermis.
...Except for oatmeal baths.
Not only are oatmeal baths ultra soothing, but they also relieve itchiness while locking in skin moisture, making this method a good one for both your physical and mental health. Try blending 1 cup of plain instant oatmeal and add it to a warm bath, then soak for 15-20 minutes while gently lathering the grounds over your skin. After you’re done, you’ll want to pat yourself dry (avoid rubbing your skin with the towel) and apply a lotion/cream to seal in that extra layer of hydration.
Stay clean, stay healthy, stay moisturized
During the uncertain months ahead, we must continue to diligently wash our hands and follow extreme hygiene protocol - there’s no way around that.
However, adding moisture, eliminating irritants and carefully choosing which products we use can preserve our skin barrier while still protecting the health of everyone around us. Bonus: no more dreading that first post-Corona handshake.
Written by Adrianne Neal