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I did a post on dry and flaky skin on the face in December (you can find it here) that triggered quite a few questions about how to deal with the excessive dryness that happens to the hands during winter.
And while basically the same principles apply, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk about your hands in a separate post: Why are they so prone to dryness and cracks, why is it a problem over the cosmetic issue and what can you do to prevent and treat them?
Here are the answers!
Why are hands often dry and bleeding in winter?
As a quick recap: Dry skin happens when there isn’t enough moisture in the upper layers, which is either due to a lack of water in the first place through a dry environment or through increased water loss because of an impaired skin barrier, either through genetics or through lifestyle factors. Usually it is a combination of both. (More info: The 5 steps you need to take to repair your skin barrier)
Hands are constantly exposed to stressors, so for example when you are outdoors in winter, your hands and your face are affected by the cold wind, when you do the dishes, your hands are immersed in water, you are constantly touching stuff and washing your hands afterwards, just think about the amount of stuff you do everyday that involves your hands. At the same time our hands have thin skin with many nerve endings, especially in the fingers. They are made to give us sensory information, explore things by touching them, they can’t have a thick protective layer like the soles of our feet do.
And lastly there is the way they are shaped, individual fingers with these parts of skin in between that fold up and can trap water or leftover soap after washing – you will often find the worst dry patches with bleeding cracks are located in between thumb and hand, because the moisture stays there and weakens the skin barrier.
Why are dry hands more than a cosmetic problem?
Now obviously dry, flaky skin and bleeding cracks don’t look nice, which is one reason why you would want to take care of that.
It also is pretty uncomfortable, especially if you have fissures already, and that is another great reason to take preventative measures.
There is however a third reason that should lead you to taking care of that problem as soon as possible: Your hands are always in contact with different things, like cosmetics, household cleaning products, food, plants, whatever. That means from all your body parts, they are the ones that are exposed to most potential allergens.
When your skin barrier is impaired, there is a higher likelihood for these things to get deeper into the skin than they usually do, where they can come in contact with immune cells and, potentially, can trigger an allergic reaction, both short term as dermatitis or as long-term acquired sensitivity to certain things.
The skin acts as a barrier, meaning you can touch a lot of stuff without it getting anywhere, but once that barrier is weakened, this line of defense isn’t as good anymore, so you need to be extra cautious.
Which lifestyle changes will help prevent dry and bleeding hands?
Allergic contact dermatitis on the hands is a real pain and should always be ruled out as cause for dry skin, bleeding fissures and flaking. Same goes for any other cause of eczema, if you have a medical condition that is the root for your skin issues, cosmetics won’t be able to treat it, so if you can, seeing a doctor is usually a great idea to be sure. (More info: Is a damaged skin barrier the cause of acne and eczema?)
Once medical issues are ruled out, here are the things you can do to get your hands back to normal, starting with prevention.
Whenever possible, protect your hands: Wear warm gloves when you are in the cold, wear rubber gloves when you are doing the dishes, these two alone can make a huge difference.
When you wash your hands, make sure you dry them completely, especially in between the fingers and underneath any jewelry you might be wearing. In fact, best take off your jewelry completely before washing and drying, that way it is less likely you miss a spot.
Speaking of washing your hands: Despite their higher alcohol content, using a hand sanitizer seems to be less drying than washing with hot water and alkaline soap, so unless your hands have visible dirt on them, using a hand sanitizer especially when you are out and about is preferable. (More info: Is alcohol in skincare really bad?)
And then of course: hand cream for the win. I have a tube in every purse, one next to the sinks I wash my hands at, one at my office, one at my desk at home and one in the car. Basically wherever I go, there is a tube of hand cream so I can moisturize my hands the second I think about it.
If you tend to forget, link hand cream to a certain action you know you will be doing repeatedly – obviously to washing the hands, but also to turning on the computer, or to turning off the computer, or to getting another cup of tea so it can sink in while the tea cools down.
Make it part of your everyday life and you will surely not forget about it as often. (More info: Is building a habit more difficult as we age?)
How can you treat dry hands?
When the skin is already dry and irritated, a thick occlusive moisturizer is your best friend. As they aren’t good throughout the day, the common recommendation is to apply them at night and wear a pair of cotton gloves on top so you can use a thick layer without ruining your bedding. You can obviously do that throughout the day as well if you have longer periods where you can sit around with cotton gloves on.
Another thing I like to do is apply a thick layer of hand cream underneath the rubber gloves when doing the dishes, the warmth acts as an extra booster. Although, “like to do” isn’t exactly right, I much prefer it when someone else does the dishes and I just apply the hand cream.
When your hands are already red and dry and bleeding, it is one of the few times when I would suggest using non-fragrant products. Not because the fragrance will on its own make things worse, but because of the slightly increased risk for developing allergies. Same goes for essential oils of course, for plant extracts and other extravagant things, plain and thick is best here.
I don’t really have a favorite, my collection is random stuff I pick up whenever I remember, but the Neutrogena Hand Cream without perfume (50 ml for 2,95 €) is one that I like throughout the day – just don’t ask what makes it a “Norwegian formula” as they advertise. As really heavy one I reach for the Ombia med Foot Balsam with 10% Urea from Aldi (150 ml for 1,85 €) that has Glycerin, Panthenol, Urea and Jojoba Oil and keeps my feet soft throughout the year. It is one for the evenings though, as it is thick and takes a while to sink in.
Boyce, J. M., Kelliher, S., & Vallande, N. (2000). Skin irritation and dryness associated with two hand-hygiene regimens: soap-and-water hand washing versus hand antisepsis with an alcoholic hand gel. Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, 21(7), 442–448. https://doi.org/10.1086/501785
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