- Diligent handwashing may keep germs away, but it may also damage skin.
- Washing in warm water rather than hot can keep your hands from getting dry.
- Blotting rather than drying hands dry can keep abrasions from forming.
- Hand sanitizer can be used temporarily in place of washing when hands are extremely chapped.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
With the COVID-19 outbreak, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are encouraging everyone to wash their hands frequently.
“Whether it be the rapidly escalating corona pandemic or just any given winter, handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of infections. Unfortunately, the very soaps and even wringing of hands underwater will also break down the barrier we are trying to protect,” Dr. Adam Friedman, professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told Healthline.
As we diligently wash hands more frequently than usual, skin experts share tips that can help keep your skin healthy.
Dr. Daniela Kroshinsky, director of pediatric dermatology and inpatient dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, says to wash hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
“About the time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, making sure to cover palms, backs of hands, fingers, in between fingers, wrists, and fingernails,” Kroshinsky told Healthline.
She said lukewarm water is best rather than hot.
“Very hot will eventually dry things out and doesn’t improve efficacy,” she said.
“So if you can, use lukewarm water with plenty of soap,” she said.
Because many soaps can strip the skin and cause them to be dry and cracked, Xu says to wash your hands with soap that’s moisturizing.
“For example, a soap with a creamy consistency. You should also look out for soaps with ingredients such as glycerin and lanolin. Also, try to avoid soap bars,” Xu told Healthline.
Renée Rouleau, skin care expert and aesthetician, also suggested staying away from bar soaps.
“The binders that hold a bar of soap together naturally have a high pH, which will cause unnecessary dryness. Instead, choose liquid soaps since they are generally less drying to the skin,” Rouleau told Healthline.
Xu adds that no matter what type of soap you’re using, try not to be too aggressive when it comes to cleaning your hands.
“This is usually [due] to rushing. Try to be gentle as to not aggravate the skin,” she said.
When water isn’t sealed into the skin after washing, it can dry out your hand.
“The reason is that water acts like a magnet and it will attract water out from the deepest layers of the skin and evaporate into the dry air. The result is even tighter, drier skin. To prevent this from happening, be sure to immediately apply hand cream afterward. Even a light layer will do,” Rouleau said.
Friedman suggests using creams or ointments rather than lotions, which he said have too much water content, and therefore don’t block water from escaping the skin.
“Although the term ‘moisturizer’ has little scientific meaning — water is not being added to the skin — topical treatment with moisturizers is fundamental to disorders that disrupt the skin barrier,” Friedman said.
He said moisturizers help with skin care because they:
- restore the barrier function of the epidermis
- provide a protective film
- fill in the small crevices between scales
- increase the water content of the epidermis
- soothe the skin
- improve the skin’s appearance and texture
He noted that ingredients in topical moisturizers that help protect the skin include:
- Occlusive: lanolin acid, stearic acid, caprylic/capric triglycerides, mineral oil, paraffin, petrolatum, cyclomethicone, dimethicone, squalene
- Humectants: sodium pyrrolidine, carboxylic acid, lactate, urea, glycerin, honey, sorbitol
- Emollients: cyclomethicone, dimethicone, isopropyl myristate, octyl octanoate
Kroshinsky agreed and recommended using a moisturizer after every washing, before bed, and whenever you feel dry.
In addition to applying a moisturizer to damp skin after washing, Friedman said to soak your hands in plain water for 5 minutes, then apply a moisturizer, and wear gloves for 1 to 2 hours.
“This will ensure that the surface moisture gets where it needs to go,” he said.
For really chapped hands, Xu said to heavily moisturize hands with thick cream and wear cotton gloves overnight.
“Much like a facial sheet mask, the gloves will keep your hands moisturized for 6 to 8 hours allowing the skin on the hands to get some needed TLC,” she said.
Wearing gloves on cold, windy days can also keep the wind from further damaging dry skin, added Friedman.
If you suffer from skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis and find your dry skin is becoming increasingly more dry, raw, or cracked due to more washing, Xu suggested opting for a skin balm such as Vaseline and applying it directly onto sores or cracked areas.
“This will both soothe the area as well as protect it from further damage, especially if you find you are outside a lot as the elements will also add to the damage,” she said.
If you have deep fissures, which Friedman said often occur at the sides of the fingers by the nail inserts, consider liquid Band-Aid.
“Liquid Band-Aid is a great way to keep the edges of the fissure together to accelerate wound healing,” he said.
If your hands are too chapped to wash, Kroshinsky says you can temporarily use hand sanitizer.
“Hand sanitizer is another option to limit handwashing until the skin recovers, but not before eating, after [going to the] bathroom, [or] when hands are visibly soiled — that should [involve] handwashing,” she said.
When drying your hands, Rouleau said blot, don’t wipe to prevent micro-abrasions on the skin.
“Paper towels are best, but if you use cloth, each person in a home should have their own towel and towels should be replaced with clean ones every 3 days. Make sure hands are thoroughly dried, as germs are more easily transferred on wet hands,” she said.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.