Dermatologist’s Tips For Dry, Chapped, Painful Hand Skin

You use your hands constantly and when your skin finally cracks and chaps it affects almost everything you do. You can have soft, healthy hands all year round if you understand what causes chapped hands and and what you need to do to prevent them.

How does the skin on your hands differ from the rest of your body?

Hand (and foot) skin is much thicker than skin on the rest of your body.  That’s why it doesn’t get irritated right away when you touch harsh chemicals, like house cleaning products, and it doesn’t chap as quickly as other areas of your skin, like your face, when you are exposed to harsh weather.

What ingredients should you look for in hand creams and how often should you moisturize your hands?

It’s important to take good care of your hand skin and that means using the right hand care products.  This is especially true in the winter when your hands are the most prone to chapping.  Use only gentle soaps to wash and then applying a good moisturizer immediately after drying your hands as often as you possibly can.  Look for gentle cleansers that contain glycerin and moisturizers with glycerin, lanolin and rich hydrating oils.  I talk more about this below.

Steps to keep your hands looking and feeling their best all year:

1.  Hand Washing

  • When you wash your hands lather only the dirty palm side of your hands unless the thinner skin on the back or your hands has also gotten dirty or has come into contact with germs.
  • Be sure to rinse your hands really well because soap residue is drying and will irritate your skin.  Pay special attention to the space between your fingers where soap residue often hides.
  • I recommend using only very mild glycerin bar soaps, or liquid soaps with a lot of added glycerin. Options include Avalon Organic Botanicals Glycerin Hand Soap, Toleraine Cleanser and two Neutrogena products: Fresh Foaming Cleanser and Extra Gentle Cleanser. There are also many natural bar soaps that are either made from glycerin or that haven’t had the glycerin removed (which is the problem with most soaps) such as Whole Foods 365 Vegetable Glycerin Soap (a great deal at about $2 a bar). Remember, the more that a soap foams, the more likely it is to be harsh on the skin. Plus, adding oil to a harsh soap doesn’t necessarily stop the soap from being harsh on your skin.  My absolute favorite natural and glycerin rich hand cleanser is my All Natural Foaming Liquid Hand Soap.  I’ve added it to the products that I sell on my site because it’s that good.  The foaming soap base cleans well but also rinses off your hands easily.  This is important because retained soap residue pulls out the natural oils from your skin, compounding your chapping hand problem.  Click here to see more about my All Natural Foaming Liquid Hand Soap

2.  Hand Moisturizing

  • Moisturize your hands with a good quality hand cream immediately after toweling dry.  It needs to be non-greasy so that you don’t mind using it during the day.  My favorite is my Dry Skin Hand Cream, which I use all day long.  Don’t bother applying hand cream if you haven’t just gotten your hands wet.  It makes your hands feel greasy and it won’t work to moisturize your skin because moisturizers lock in the water that your hand skin just soaked up during washing.
  • Apply the cream to your entire hand, but especially the back, which has thinner skin and is more likely to chap.
  • Wipe off the excess cream from the palm side to keep from getting it on everything and having a slippery grip.
  • The most effective non-greasy hydrating ingredients are glycerin and lanolin.  During the day find a product that is non-greasy.  At night give your hands a real therapeutic hydrating treatment with a rich and heavy product.  To do this, soak them in warm (not hot) water for 5 minutes, towel dry then apply a generous layer of some rich, super-therapeutic ointment like Bag Balm (which contains lanolin from wool). In fact, I’m such a fan of Bag Balm that I’ve added this time-honored home remedy for chapped hands to my website.  Click here to see more about why I love Bag Balm.  Cover them with cotton gloves to lock in the ointment and wear the gloves overnight. If your wool allergic try pure shea butter (available in the skin care section of your natural food store) or ShiKai’s Borage Dry Skin Therapy.

What should you do if your hands are already severely chapped?

If you have chapped hands you need to protect them from further irritation.  This means wearing rubber gloves when your touching irritating things like dish soap, house cleaners and even some foods like tomatoes, citrus etc. A good rule of thumb (no pun intended) is that for contact with things that would be too harsh to apply to your facial skin, you need gloves to touch them with your chapped hands. Yes, this is surprising and inconvenient. But think about what you ask your hands to do over and over again! You use them like they are gloved to touch harsh chemicals. Normally they can handle it because healthy hand skin is a pretty good barrier, but chapped skin is broken. Harsh chemicals get through chapped skin, irritating it like putting lemon juice on a cut. Your chapped hands just won’t heal unless you protect them until they are completely recovered.  This means that you need to keep using the gloves until the skin is entirely back to normal plus at least a week or two. This is pretty inconvenient so it’s best to just take really good care of your hands before they become chapped by washing with gentle soaps, regularly moisturizing and not over using hand sanitizers.

I’ve created a complete hand care kit to heal chapped hands and keep them healthy.  My kit has all the essential products you need.  Visit the Kit’s web page to get more of my skin care advice for exactly how to care for your hands.

Click here to jump to the page for my Dry Skin Hand Repair Kit


If You Found This Helpful You May Also Want To Read:

What’s The Best Way To Remove Skin Tags?

What Is Acne Rosacea?

Dandruff (aka Seborrheic Dermatitis); Dermatologist’s Treatment Tips

Cracked, Dry, Brittle and Splitting Fingernails; Dermatologist’s Tips

Photo: Gratitude and Thanks to Agustin Ruiz

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2 Responses to “Dermatologist’s Tips For Dry, Chapped, Painful Hand Skin”

  1. Nadine February 26, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    Dear Dr. Bailey,

    My brother is an aspiring surgeon (currently M2), washes his hands frequently, abhors the slightest feeling of any grease on his hands, and refuses to apply moisturizer. Unsurprisingly, the skin on his hands is chapped, irritated, and compromised overall. I have bought him copious amounts of different moisturizers that are sitting unused. His roommate is an aspiring dermatologist (also M2) and has also been unsuccessful is coaxing my brother to moisturize his hands. To provide relief, my brother was (ab)using hydrocortisone 1% for a while, but he has now thankfully stopped. It boggles my mind how he was willing to apply hydrocortisone (which is usually in a greasy-feeling petroleum base) but won’t moisturize his hands. Besides what you’ve covered in your blog post, do you have any tips/talking points/psychological strategies for helping a non-compliant patient like my brother? What would you say to a resistant colleague who is also a medical professional?


    P.S. My brother jokes about having OCD, but we know it’s just a joke because he doesn’t fit DSM criteria. Besides, don’t med students think they have every disease they learn about in class?

  2. Cynthia Bailey MD February 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    Hello Nadine,
    I too don’t want greasy palms leaving a messy film on everything I touch. That’s why I am so enthusiastic about the Intensive Hand Cream. It hydrates effectively without a messy greasy film. I use a paper towel to remove any excess product from my palms and my hands feel great. Like your brother I wash my hands almost compulsively to protect my patients and myself from germs.
    Best of luck,
    Cynthia Bailey MD
    P.S. A slight ‘touch’ of OCD comes in handy for a detail-oriented doctor.