Are you damaging your hands by washing them too much?
Keep yourself healthy—without drying out your skin.
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Whether you’re purposefully tuned into the news or not, you have to know that COVID-19, a.k.a., the coronavirus, is the biggest topic of conversation right now. There’s even a shortage of preventative supplies like sanitizers and face masks, resulting in worried consumers making their own. While the CDC and health organizations alike advise that washing your hands diligently is the most effective way to avoid getting the illness or spreading it to others, there can be some drawbacks—namely, dry, cracked, or raw-feeling skin. We spoke to Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City, to learn how you can take care of your skin while prioritizing your health.
Why is washing and sanitizing your hands so drying to the skin?
Even (or, perhaps, especially) if you’re washing your hands properly, over-cleansing skin can irritate it, just as using new products or exfoliating with a scrub can. When you wash with soap for the CDC-recommended 20 seconds, you’re wearing down the skin barrier, or the outermost layer of the epidermis that protects it from bacteria, fungus, and other harmful microorganisms. “The more you put your hands in water, the more you lose your natural skin oils,” Friedler says. “So, the more you wash, the drier your skin will become.” The good news is that it’s not inherently harmful—as long as you replenish the skin barrier with a moisturizer, like a lotion or ointment.
What to look for in a lotion
If you already have dry skin or you’re noticing the effects of more frequent washing or sanitizing, the best way to remedy the problem is to coat your hands with a moisturizing product after every cleaning. There are plenty of hand creams that smell nice, but don’t do enough for your skin—skip those and go for the good stuff. Look for lotions and balms that contain oils to replenish what your soap or sanitizer took away, or ones that contain ceramides, another ingredient that creates a moisture barrier on the skin. Two inexpensive lotions to try are the CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream and the O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Hand Cream.
If your skin is particularly dry and you have small cuts or scaly skin, you can also use an ointment like Aquaphor, which seals in moisture—but it will leave your skin slick or greasy, so you may want to save this treatment for overnight healing only.
What to look for in a hand soap
Your choice of soap is also important for protecting dry or irritated skin. Using an antibacterial soap isn’t necessary for the average person, as the most important aspect of a cleanser is that it contains surfactants that break up bonds to aid in the removal of the microbes (those living organisms that may cause disease). Instead, focus on buying a soap that contains humectants, or substances that reduce moisture loss—if it happens to be antibacterial, too, that’s fine but not necessary (especially as we’re talking about preventing the spread of a virus in this case). Friedler recommends the Cetaphil Gentle Cleansing Bar, which is soap-free and designed for dry and sensitive skin, but says, “The key is, no matter what soap you choose, to rub vigorously for 20 seconds and then, after you dry your hands, put on a good barrier cream [like those listed above].”
What to look for in a hand sanitizer
In the absence of a sink and soap, the CDC recommends that you use a sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol—a higher percentage is more effective at killing germs. The CDC also advises you to read the label to determine how much sanitizer to use and then rub it all over your hands until they are completely dry.
Unfortunately, sanitizers are notoriously drying, precisely because of the alcohol in them. To reduce moisture loss, some have added humectants like glycerin in them, such as Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer or The Honest Company Hand Sanitizer Spray. No matter the product you use, follow up with lotion and your hands will thank you.
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