For many of us, winter is the toughest time of year on our hands. Humidity is low and outdoor temperatures are cold. Inside, the air can be even more arid, with indoor heating circulating in our homes and offices. These environmental conditions, along with an increased need to wash hands frequently to avoid getting sick, sap the natural oils your skin needs to stay soft and healthy. Instead our hands become dehydrated and may crack, peel, bleed, and become painful.
The skin on the palms of your hands (and soles of your feet) is designed to protect you from irritation during normal daily activities, such as touching household cleaning products or exposure to harsh weather. However, the skin on the backs of your hands is thinner with less oil glands. The natural oils in the skin on your hands protects you from dryness. When your skin is excessively dry, and your hands crack and chap, it affects almost everything you do.
Why Does Dry Skin Happen?
Strength of Skin: How our hands withstand winter’s harsh conditions is related to the strength of our skin barrier, which can be hereditary. The skin barrier is made up of a combination of proteins, lipids, and oils that protect our skin from assault. If your skin barrier is “weak”, you may be prone to symptoms of sensitive skin, like itching, inflammation, and eczema. You are also more likely to experience excessively dry hands in winter.
Arid Conditions: As humidity drops in the air, so does our skin’s moisture content.
Excessive Hand Washing: Washing our hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs can strip the natural oils in our skin that help keep our hands protected and moisturized.
What Should I Do to Heal Dry Skin?
Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
To treat dry, irritated hands, you need to replace the moisture that your skin is missing. This can be done with a moisturizer applied directly to the skin to help strengthen the skin barrier and prevent water from evaporating. The best approach is to apply a moisturizer before dryness appears. Keep your moisturizer with you so that you remember to use it frequently throughout the day. Apply the moisturizer to your entire hand, but especially the back, which has thinner skin and is more likely to chap. Cover your hands and nails completely as nails can become dry, as well.
Washing your hands frequently can add to dryness. While it is important to protect your health by keeping your hands clean, you also need to be aware of protecting the skin on your hands. Choose a mild cleanser that is unscented and use warm- not hot water. Pat your hands dry and apply a moisturizer right away. If your hands are already chapped, cracked and irritated, lather only the palm side of your hands and be sure to rinse really well as soap residue can cause further dryness and irritation. Look for gentle cleansers that contain glycerin or dimethicone, which both draw water to the skin and help keep it there.
Choose the Right Moisturizer
There are plenty of hand creams and body lotions to choose from. Remembering that there are only two types of ingredients that do the work when it comes to keeping your skin soft and hydrated: emollients and humectants, should help you decide.
Emollients act as lubricants on the surface on the skin. These cause the slippery feeling that happens when you apply the lotion or cream. Emollients fill the crevices between cells and help keep the skin soft, smooth, and pliable. Look for ingredients such as lanolin, jojoba oil, isopropyl palmitate, propylene glycol linoleate, squalene, and glycerol stearate.
Humectants draw moisture from the environment to the skin’s surface, increasing the water content of the skin’s surface. Look for common humectants such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, propylene glycerol, urea, and lactic acid.
Severely Damaged Skin
When your hands go from being dry to having little cracks or fissures, and are tender or bleeding, it is time to move on to more therapeutic solutions. Petroleum jelly is a good, affordable alternative. Another option is a thick, rich moisturizer in a formula that contains heavier ingredients such as dimethicone, cocoa or shea butter, or beeswax. If redness, peeling, and tenderness persist, see your Dermatologist. He or she may prescribe a strong topical steroid cream to help fight inflammation, and explore the possibility that your dry hands may be caused by another skin condition.
Consider a Humidifier – Add moisture to your home or office with a humidifier to help ease dry skin all over your body.
Wear Gloves- Wear gloves or mittens if you’re going to be outdoors. Also wear gloves when you are touching harsh chemicals, such as home cleaning products. Even washing the dishes can cause further dryness and chapping.
Wear cotton and other natural fibers: Wool, synthetics, or other fabrics can be scratchy and irritating.
Avoid Hot Baths and Showers: The intense heat of a hot shower or bath actually breaks down the lipid barriers in the skin, which can lead to a loss of moisture. Instead choose warm water.
You can have soft, hydrated hands in the winter. The key is prevention. Start now!
About the Author: Dr. Richard Asarch, M.D., heads the Asarch Center for Dermatology and Laser in Denver, CO, its accompanying state-of-the-art DermaSpa and is an Associate Clinical Professor for the Dept. of Dermatology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. As one of America’s top medical doctors, Dr. Asarch has spent over 35 years in practice evaluating and adopting the latest advances in cosmetic dermatology. His experience and continued dedication to scientifically-based innovations has led to the creation of DERMAspaRx, a comprehensive line of products designed to meet the needs of individual skin types.