Pandemic of Dry Hands: hand sanitizers, the Swine Flu and tips to save your hands

Cynthia Bailey, MD|December 3, 2009

healthy hand skinYour hands are going to need special attention this year! I've never seen so many patients with severely dry hands in all my years as a dermatologist. Folks with chapped hands started coming into my office during the early fall, well before the weather turned cold here in Northern California. It's the hand sanitizer craze! People with the worst chapped hands invariably were just around someone sick and used "a ton" of hand sanitizer trying not to get sick themselves. Hand sanitizer sales are going like gangbusters. Every ones using them all the time and everyplace they touch something public or shake someone's hand. My own medical office has a bottle at the check in counter and another at the checkout counter. There's also one in every exam room. Because hand sanitizers typically contain at least 60% alcohol, they strip your hand's natural oils and dry out your skin....

You're going to need savvy hand skin care skills to make it through this years cold and flu season without dry, itchy chapped hands.

Here's what I'm telling my patients:

Dermatologists Skin Care Advice for Hand Sanitizer Users

  1. Use the thicker skin on the palm side of your hands as your 'public' side to touch dirty things, and only apply hand sanitizer to this side. I taught my kids this when they were little. Think of your hands as having a 'public' side and a 'private' side. The 'public' side (palm and palm side of the fingers) touches shopping carts, escalator hand rails, public ink pens etc. The 'private' side on the back needs to stay clean and it's what you use to scratch your nose, rub your eyes etc., unless your hands are freshly washed. Try to keep your germ contact on the thick 'public' side because the tough thick skin there is better able to tolerate hand sanitizers and repleted washing. Only apply hand sanitizer to this 'public side' unless you've potentially gotten germs on the back 'private' side too, like when you shake someone's hand.
  2. Take really good care of your hand skin in between hand sanitizer applications. This means use only gentle soaps to wash and apply a good moisturizer immediately after drying your hands as often as possible. More specifically:
  • Use gentle, non drying soaps and lather only the dirty 'public' side of your hands unless the back 'private' side is 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. The mildest soaps are the many glycerin bar soaps, or liquid soaps with a lot of added glycerin. I have the perfect gentle, glycerin rich hand cleanser.  It's foaming so that it rinses off easily.  This is important because retained soap residue will continue to pull out natural oils from your skin to compound your chapping hand problem.  Click here to see my All Natural Foaming Liquid Hand Soap.  I have another really gentle glycerin rich cleanser Toleriane Cleanser,  which is also a wonderfully gentle facial cleanser. These products clean well but are remarkably gentle on all skin including the hands. Other options include Avalon Organic Botanicals Glycerin Hand Soap, 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.
  • Moisturize your hands with a good quality hand cream immediately after toweling dry. Apply the cream to your entire hand, but especially the back 'private' side where the skin is thinner and 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. Most hand creams are greasy and hard to use during the day. OTB Skin Care carries the perfect non greasy hand cream called Dry Skin Hand Cream. It's what I use all day long and my hands stay pretty hydrated in spite of washing and hand sanitizing them constantly. If your hands start chapping, give them a big hydrating boost at night. Soak them in warm water for 5 minutes, towel dry then apply a generous layer of some heavy and greasy ointment with lanolin like Bag Balm (if you're not allergic to wool) and cover them with cotton gloves overnight. If your wool allergic try pure shea butter (available in the skin care section of your natural food store) pr ShiKai's Borage Dry Skin Therapy.
  • If you have chapped hands you need to wear 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 with chapped hands. Surprising and inconvenient, but think about what you ask your hands to do; 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 and you need to keep using the gloves until the skin is entirely back to normal plus 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 the hand sanitizers.

I've put together all the best (and my favorite) products to heal chapped hands and created my Dry Hand Skin Repair Kit, which includes:

  1. Vermont Foaming Hand Soap
  2. Bag Balm
  3. Dry Skin Hand Cream
  4. Cotton Gloves
  5. Fingertip file for splitting and fissured fingertip skin (an option)

Click here to learn more about my Dry Hand Skin Repair Kit


  If you found this post helpful, you may also want to read: Chapped Lips: The Remedy Depends on the Cause Dermatologist's 3 Simple Steps for Sandal Ready Feet by Spring Dermatologist's Simple Tips for Athlete's Foot Fungus Treatment Brilliant Skin Care For The New Decade Essential Winter Skin Care; 2 simple tricks to healthy winter skin Dermatologist's Tips For Dry Flaky Skin on Your Face and Scalp-Tis the Season for Seborrheic Dermatitis Making Sense Of The Vitamin D Dilemma And Sun Exposure Photo attribution: > / <a rel="license" href="">CC BY 2.0</a></div>

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