Are your hands painfully dry and cracked because you’ve been following the widespread advice to frequently wash them or apply hand sanitiser to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? If so, you should be aware of a less widely cited hygiene recommendation: to moisturise as well.
“Keeping skin moisturised is important,” said Craig Shapiro, an attending physician in paediatric infectious diseases at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. “If the skin is breaking down or raw, then the soap and alcohol disinfectants do not work as well. Also, when skin is chapped and broken, it’s uncomfortable, and people can be less likely to wash their hands to prevent transmission of germs and infection.”1
Your skin acts as a protective barrier, forming the first line of defence in your immune system.2 Your skin is also a biome, just like your gut – a collection of living bacteria and fungi that cooperate to keep pathogens out.3 When your skin gets excessively dry – for example from a perfect-storm combination of over-washing and winter dryness, inflammation occurs and it can impair the skin’s natural barrier.
Cracked and bleeding hands are also more susceptible to infections. “Whenever you have a break in that skin barrier, that allows germs and bacteria to invade the skin area,” said Christina Johns, senior medical adviser and spokeswoman for PM Paediatrics. Any microbe can technically enter through open wounds, Johns said, but coronavirus tends to enter the body through the respiratory system. Through the skin, transmission tends to be typical skin bacteria, such as staph infections and strep.
Moisturising hands does not increase the likelihood of picking up or spreading germs, especially if the hands are clean. Moisturising hands does reduce microbial shedding from the skin and is part of good hand hygiene, which will protect people from picking up viruses and reduce the likelihood of transmission.
So how can you continue to engage in important hand washing practices while preventing skin irritation and redness?
According to Dr. Julia Carroll, a dermatologist at Toronto’s Compass Dermatology and lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, using a moisturising soap and hand cream directly after can give you relief.
For those who suffer from dry hands or preexisting skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, over washing can make them worse. Carroll said it is important to prevent dryness because cracked skin can lead to a skin infection.4
“The best defence is an offence and just to stay ahead of it,” she said.
- Moisturising lotions work by locking in existing moisture, so the ideal time to apply them is after washing, when the skin is hydrated.
- Avoiding perfumes and dyes, as they can further irritate skin.
- During the day, use a lighter lotion which sinks in quickly and won’t leave hands greasy or keep you from your tasks.
- At night, use a heavier balm to moisturise while you sleep. If your skin is very cracked and broken, you can slather your hands with balm and then sleep in gloves.
- Don’t share your moisturiser with anyone else. You want to use clean hands — you don’t want to have dirty fingers on the pumps.
- Keeping hands in good condition is especially important for health-care workers, who must wash their hands frequently and are at a greater risk of spreading infections.
Click here for moisturising soaps that will help prevent dryness.
Click here for light day lotions that won’t leave hands greasy.
Click here for a heavier balm, suitable for moisturising hands at night.
Click here if you have eczema.
Click here if you have psoriasis.