Caring for Dry, Cracked Hands

Our hands are our primary tools for interacting with the world around us and as a result we end up washing them more frequently than other parts of our bodies. Along with the skin on our face, our hands are more exposed than the rest of our body, which is usually covered by a protective layer of clothing. Through a process called transepidermal water loss (TeWL), our skin releases moisture into the air, a process that is somewhat mitigated by the protection of our clothing. In the winter, when heat is running indoors and the outdoor temperature drops, the air becomes even more dry. For all of these reasons, your hands require a little extra attention; here are some tips from the experts:

Moisturizing is the primary solution for dry skin

Staying properly hydrated and drinking the recommended 64 oz of water per day is one aspect of maintaining hydrated skin, but research shows additional water consumption beyond this baseline has no effect on moisture levels in the skin. Other moisturizing tactics are:

  • Physically applying water to our skin by soaking or bathing
  • Drawing in moisture from the air with humectant ingredients in topical skincare products
  • Sealing in moisture so it’s less susceptible to evaporation through the skin with occlusive ingredients

The moisture added to the skin by soaking, will be readily lost through this evaporative process unless you take proper steps to seal in moisture. This is why it is important to find the right moisturizers that will fit into your lifestyle. You’ll want to look for moisturizing creams that can add moisture to your skin with humectant (water retaining) ingredients as well as product that will reinforce the skin’s natural barrier function with oil-based ingredients to seal in moisture already in your skin. For hands, it is important to moisturize and protect every time you wet or wash your hands and to add moisture with humectants frequently. Find a moisturizer that works for you and keep it close by throughout the day. Remember to reapply every time you wash your hands and whenever your skin feels tight or dry.

Wash your hands with lukewarm water and a mild soap

Washing your hands is an essential part of a healthy and hygienic lifestyle. Washing with soap and water is proven to reduce infection from pathogens.1 But frequent exposure to soap and water can take a toll on your skin. To illustrate this, think about washing a particularly greasy pan, using hot water helps to melt the oils more readily than cooler water. Using dish soap speeds up the process, the surfactants in the soap release the oils from the surface and help remove them from the pan. The oils on your skin react the same way the grease does on the pan. Hot water strips the natural oils more readily from your skin, these natural oils help us trap moisture in our skin and when they are depleted by it can lead to increased dryness.

A couple of things you can do to reduce the impact of frequent handwashing is to use lukewarm water instead of hot water. Opt for a milder soap, many soaps are specifically designed to strip oils from surfaces. Cleansing is often concerned with removing excess body oil or external dirt and grease, a feature you may not need if you have naturally dry, sensitive skin. After washing your hands, use a moisturizing cream or balm to hydrate and lock in moisture.

Use a thicker balm to add an added level of protection

Reducing the amount of moisture you remove from your skin, and adding moisture back to the skin are two great ways to get your hands back to their supple selves. However, when hands have already cracked, they create an escape for that moisture, and it gets wicked from the skin more rapidly. Applying a thicker balm with a higher oil content helps to create an artificial layer of protection that seals in the moisture.

Wear gloves

Cold or otherwise dry air and wind draw moisture from the skin. The skin acts as a barrier to preserve this moisture loss, but for all of the reasons mentioned, our environment can compromise this function. Wearing gloves can act as an additional protective layer to reduce moisture loss.

  • Cold weather and wind exposure: colder temperatures mean lower humidity levels, so cold air is typically dry air. Wear cold-weather gloves whenever you are outside when the air is very dry and cold to protect your hands.
  • Water exposure: Wear dishwashing or other plastic-type gloves when your hands will be wet or exposed to chemicals, like when you are washing dishes, bathing pets and loved ones or cleaning around the house.
  • Moisturize with gloves: Applying a moisturizer or sealing in water with a balm before you put gloves on can act like a hydrating mask for your hands. Disposable nitrile or latex gloves, or even a pair of clean socks paired with a rich moisturizer can be a great way to rejuvenate dry, cracked skin on your hands.

1) World Health Organization, 2017

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