Prevent dry skin from handwashing

With the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 rising daily, it’s important to be hyper-vigilant with handwashing.

Although staying at home and practising social distancing is helping to flatten the curve, we still need to do all we can to prevent the virus from spreading. One of the main things, of course, is handwashing.

The official advice is to cleanse for 20 seconds, and to do so regularly. But this can come with an unfortunate side effect – very dry hands.

Soap is drying because it often contains ingredients that attack the skin’s natural protective layer, the sebum. When the skin becomes dehydrated and stripped of some of its natural oils, it can lose elasticity and become cracked, red, uncomfortable and itchy.

Now we’re getting closer to winter, you may suffer from extra-red, rough, raw and itchy skin. This is because the colder winter months tend to bring lower humidity, both outdoors and indoors. The water content of the outermost layer of the skin (the epidermis) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it.

Dealing with dry skin is worth limiting the risk of catching and spreading disease and, fortunately, there are a few simple and inexpensive things to help

Dry hands are something Dr Amber Woodcock, medical director of Cosmetics Doctor in Norwich, UK, is familiar with as she washes her hands multiple times a day at the hospital.

This means Dr Woodcock knows from experience how to keep dry skin at bay. Her top tip is to “wet the hands first rather than put the soap directly onto dry skin, which can be irritating”.

After you wash your hands, a good quality hand cream is also vital if you’re prone to dry skin, Dr Woodcock says. She’s a particular fan of Aveeno hand creams, which contain oatmeal, explaining: “If applied regularly, it helps to trap water and hydrate the hands, to prevent cracking and irritation.”

When choosing a product, try to avoid aqueous creams – which are often labelled and marketed under this name. These are often used to target dehydrated skin, but Dr Woodcock says: “It’s actually drying, so we don’t recommend it for cream, only washing.” She cites a 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Bath, which found that aqueous cream “reduces the thickness of healthy skin over a period of four weeks, calling into question whether the cream should be used for treating eczema”.

Aqueous creams are emollients, made with a mixture of emulsifying ointments and water. The 2010 study identifies sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) as the drying ingredient in aqueous creams, which can thin the protective outer layer of the skin and let moisture escape. While some aqueous creams don’t contain SLS, most do – making it a key ingredient to avoid when buying hand creams and moisturisers in general.

Moisturisers help with skincare 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.

Other tips to lock in as much moisture as possible:

Wash hands with warm water
The temperature of the water needed to kill pathogens would scald your skin. So, as long as you’re making sure to cover the palms, backs of hands, fingers, in between fingers, wrists and fingernails with soap, using very hot water won’t make a difference. In fact, it’s more likely to dry skin out and strip it of any natural oils that it needs to stay waterproof.

Use a moisturising soap
Try to find a soap with a creamy consistency, with ingredients such as glycerine and lanolin.

Think about taking a break from using soap bars as the binders used to hold them together naturally have a high pH level, which can cause extra dryness.

Wear gloves when washing up and for housework
This reduces the likelihood of your hands coming into contact with damaging chemicals or detergents, which could potentially irritate the skin.

For really chapped hands, heavily moisturise hands with thick cream and wear cotton gloves overnight.

Use a skin balm
If you suffer from a skin condition such as eczema, all this extra handwashing could irritate the skin, making it more dry, raw or cracked. Applying a skin balm such as Vaseline directly onto sores or cracked areas may soothe the area and protect it from further damage.

Blot hands dry
Blot skin, don’t rub or wipe, when drying to help prevent micro-abrasions on the skin. Make sure hands are thoroughly dried, as germs are more transferrable on wet hands.

As regular handwashing becomes unavoidable and more of us suffer from dry skin, it’s important to think about the aftercare – and not skip the initial cleanse.

What’s your favourite moisturiser to keep hands soft? Do you have any extra tips to share?

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Written by Ellie Baxter

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