How to keep your hands from totally drying out when you’re washing them all the time

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As of this posting (March 11, 2020), Covid-19, d/b/a the coronavirus, has infiltrated parts of the world and of the US, including near where I live in the Northeast. While there are still a lot of unanswered questions – and, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation being spread around – almost every public service announcement has included the reminder about the importance of good hand washing habits, which means per the CDC:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone at home who is sick with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

Also per the CDC, “washing your hands” means:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Now that we’ve gotten the basics out of the way, let’s focus on the unfortunate side effect that can accompany all of this extra hand washing: dry, chapped and cracked skin and cuticles – the kind that does not go away easily, if at all – especially if you live in an already dry or arid area (I’m looking at you, New England).

It’s the kind of skin that used to plague me frequently. I spent many of my formative years, up to my early 30s, working in various hospitality gigs, including as a cocktail waitress, where I regularly dealt with sticky trays and cash (and spilled drinks, because I never said I was a great cocktail waitress), and where I washed my hands so often I began to develop little splits in my skin on the side of each fingernail, kind of how a peeled orange looks when you fan open the slices.

Alas, there are solutions I’ve developed that work for me, some of which are simply a step or two up from how you’d otherwise address dry skin, others that are a bit more philosophical and approach lifestyle. In addition to my previous service industry roles, I’ve been an avid skin care practitioner for practically my whole life, with lots of wins (and several, “Whoa, girl, what were you thinking?” misses) under my belt. Everything you’ll find in here is accessible, easy to follow, and linked back to its source.

Before I share my tips, allow me to share first a disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or medical professional – kind of a, “Duh” statement, but this is the Internet, home of the professional opinion dweller – and it is therefore not medical advice, but anecdotal and personal evidence and beliefs as to what works and has worked for me, and might be helpful for someone else.

I realize, too, that in the grand scheme of the world imploding, dry hands might seem like a non-issue, or in very least just a nuisance. But, this is about the amplification of an already healthful habit, and taking care of our skin, which is our largest organ.

None of these products or practices were sent to me by PR reps or as paid endorsements; they’re all items I’ve actually used and enjoy. Just so we’re clear.

Also, I’m not a vegan, though I previously followed (somewhat fanatically) a plant-based diet for a stretch of time and wrote about its merits prolifically. If you’re in that camp and/or offend easily, this content is likely not for you.

1. First things first: switch up your skin care products, especially your hand soap, and make sure they’re free of alcohol*, artificial fragrances and dyes – and that they have some sort of animal-based moisturizer if possible.

*This obviously does not apply to items like hand sanitizer, which is alcohol-based but is also not the focus of this piece.

The jury is out as to whether “antibacterial soap” is actually as effective as simply washing your hands the right way (see: above). There are also doctors and medical professionals who literally “scrub in” to their jobs using an entirely different protocol. However, these don’t apply to me, so I can’t speak to them.

What I have found, though – and this is true, too, for stuff like shampoo and body wash – is that by skipping ingredients that are drying by nature , you eliminate, or at least lessen, the need to put back the moisture that would otherwise be stripped away. Unfortunately, most conventional hand soaps, in my experience, do just that.

This is a two-part approach, since you’ll want to also focus on not just avoiding stripping away your skin’s oil barrier, but adding to and maintaining it. Which is where stuff like goat’s milk, beeswax, tallow, lard and, as gross as this might sound, fish oil, comes in.

Tallow and lard, specifically, is biocompatible with human skin. They also contain fat-soluble vitamins that promote skin health.

If I still have your attention and you’re like, “That’s all great, but just tell me what to use, please,” here are the soaps I like and recommend (which includes a few picks from women-owned, independently-run businesses):

Clover Garden Soaps marshmallow shampoo bar ($6.99): I originally found this product back in the fall, in the midst of a Google rabbit hole on shampoo alternatives. It does its job, but also makes for a wonderful hand and face wash. There are other scents/blends/varietals, including options for men. I recently tried their cucumber-yogurt bar, which I’m digging and is super moisturizing.

Silk Tree Farm eucalyptus-mint goat’s milk bar soap ($6.50): I met the proprietress of the farm at the Pawtucket winter farmers’ market and bought several of these as Christmas gifts. This scent in particular is heavenly.

•Mini goat’s milk soaps in the Whole Foods travel bins ($2, approximately): I unfortunately did not keep the wrapper from mine (purchased sometime over the past month), but the Whole Foods near me currently has them in stock. Any other type of goat’s milk soap you can find will probably offer the same benefits.

Alaffia Everyday Coconut liquid pump soap ($5, approximately): This is one of those products I originally only tried because it was on sale at Whole Foods and, well, I needed hand soap for my bathroom – then wound up liking it so much I bought another (and their body wash, also good), before Whole Foods stopped carrying it. Womp. Thankfully, iHerb does, and has fast shipping & exceptional customer service – but on the topic of this soap: no, there are no animal products in here (and yes, I have used this on my face, too), but all of its minimal ingredients are skin-friendly. This soap foams nicely, the company’s mission is positive, and the price is reasonable given the quality and quantity.

Dr. Bronner’s castile soap (price varies by size; you can find a travel-sized bottle for about $2.50): To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of using Dr. Bronner’s as a hand soap – I find that there’s a weird slip, where I wind up using a lot more of the product than I need to (to be fair, the instructions are to dilute it based on intention, since this is one of those “multi products” that can also be used to mop floors, wash laundry, etc.) and sometimes my hands feel a bit too squeaky when I’m done, but it largely fits the bill based on the parameters I’ve set above, especially where you can buy it in bulk and refill a smaller bottle to save money and plastic. Again, no animal products in this one.

2. When and where possible, bring your skin-friendly soap with you.

If you work in an office equipped with restrooms and soap dispensers of their own, you don’t get to choose what goes into the hand soap pump, which often contains an industrial-grade liquid formula. How I’ve solved this issue is to just bring my own soap with me, whether that means keeping the mini Dr. Bronner’s bottle in my purse or stashing a bar soap at my desk. The trick is to remember to bring it with you, before your hands are positioned under an automatic dispenser (which still happens to me sometimes; humans, so fallible we are). This concept also applies to using public restrooms in general: again, if it’s convenient to bring soap with you (and you’re not concerned with coming off as incredibly Type-A), give it a shot.

3. Use next-level hand creams and balms.

There are hand creams, and there are next-level hand creams that, once you start using them, will both be a blessing and a curse, because they are incredibly effective, but admittedly are not as cheap as other their run-of-the-mill counterparts.

Even as a relatively frugal lady, I still tend to splurge in this area, mostly because whenever I’ve tried a workaround, find myself back at square one, with crispy cuticles and sandpapery knuckles (though, switching out my soap, which is something I’ve only recently paid a lot more attention to, has solved a lot of those issues).

To clarify, how I define “effective” in this area: my hands don’t only have to feel and look hydrated after the initial application, they can’t feel gunky or overly greasy (one exception, noted below), and it has to last through at least one hand washing. Some people swear by applying creams while skin is still damp to lock in moisture. I haven’t noticed much of a difference between damp or dry application, but do you.

My winter 2019/2020 picks include:

Texas Tallow baby butter ($7 for a small container): Delectable, whipped goodness that saturates and soothes on contact. A little goes a long way, and it leaves my fingernails looking nice and shiny and healthy. The ladies who run the shop are incredibly friendly, and I’m sure babies love this product, too! It is the second priciest on the list, where a full-sized jar goes for $24 plus shipping, but would argue that it’s one of the more effective brands I’ve tried, so pick and choose what’s most important to you, e.g. having to constantly reapply a lesser quality product or using something that works a few times a day (though, don’t allow me to dissuade you from moisturizing liberally).

Vintage Traditions Epic Glow tallow balm ($4.50 for a sample container): Yes, this contains fermented cod liver oil. No, it does not smell bad. Yes, you will have extremely supple hands, though the texture is a bit stiff, especially compared to the Texas Tallow butter. It is also the priciest pick if you size up (a sample jar lasted me about a week). I’ll give this a solid ‘B+’ since it’s so effective, and because the company is family-run and health-focused as a whole.

Weleda Skin Food ($12, roughly, for a smaller tube that will last a few months): This is one of those products you’ve probably read about before, since it seems like every celebrity and her makeup artist loves it. It’s marketed for universal use, i.e. hands, face, feet, but have found it works best on hands, particularly knuckles and wrists, and heels. Leaves a nice, non-tacky sheen and smells like a trip to the grapefruit grove.

Sierra Bees argan balm with shea butter ($3): Yep, this balm is only $3 for a full-sized product – and the jar lasts for a few months. I originally purchased this as part of a promotional special at iHerb (and without caring too much as to whether it worked or not, given the price), and was very pleasantly surprised at how effective it is. Smells chocolatey and sweet, but not overbearing.

Lush Helping Hands ($21.95): Back to my cocktail-slinging (dropping) days: this is the hand cream, designed specifically for people who work with their hands, that rescued my poor little mitts from a season of being perpetually chapped and raw, and which I’ve given as gifts to others who work with their hands, including my dad (a retired mail carrier) and sister (a nurse). I’ve also given it to my mom, who, growing up, ordered me to layer sweaters if I complained I was cold and routinely shut off the lights while I was reading a book. She is not the type of person who casually strolls into a $22 jar of hand cream, and she loves it, too.

Beef tallow (price varies by brand, about $10/$12): If you’re willing to get greasy, or don’t care about frills, go with plain beef tallow – which is the animal-based equivalent to coconut oil as far as culinary trends go, and price-wise, is the most affordable compared to the other options I’ve listed above. It doesn’t carry any particular smell, but would suggest that if you stick your fingers in the jar, to get a separate one for cooking (again, hygiene). Also, given its oily nature, I recommend using it before bed versus during the day, though you can also towel off any excess.

4. Take some type of fish oil, and make sure you’re eating enough fat.

We are what we eat (and more specifically, what we digest) – and getting enough healthy fat in our diet improves not only our health, but skin quality. Salmon and organ meat are my preferred sources; choose what works for you. Fish oil especially has made a marked improvement in everything from how my eyes feel to the texture of my hair – though, unlike a topical application such as a cream or salve, it takes a bit more time before the effects become noticeable. I prefer cod liver oil these days to get the added benefits of naturally-occurring vitamins A and D. Here are the brands the Weston A. Price Foundation currently recommends; of these, I like Twin Labs’ version, both for the price and consistency, and would personally recommend liquid over capsules as a whole. I tried the pricier Blue Ice brand (considered the gold standard among some health experts), and it was okay, but personally didn’t feel much of a difference. Wiley’s is good as far as fish oil goes and is and widely available at many supermarkets (typically on sale at Whole Foods multiple times a year, too).

5. Hydrate internally.

There are mixed reviews as to whether plain water is truly “hydrating” or, paradoxically, dehydrating. Most conventional resources advocate for eight, 8 oz glasses per day – but this also depends largely on activity level, body type and size, existing health conditions and other extenuating factors that can affect a number of bodily functions and chemistry. It’s also possible to drink too much water – I speak from experience – with negative consequences of various severity. You’ll have to do your own research.

Here’s how I prefer to stay hydrated instead:

•Adding electrolytes to water, a la this Snake Juice recipe. (Note: I’m not commenting on or advocating for the Snake Diet, just the recipe)

•Alternatively, if you’re a taste snob and have the resources for it, go for a good mineral water, like Pellegrino (sparkling) or Evian (still). Whole Foods’ store brand equivalents are a great value.

•Consuming watery foods that are easy to digest – for me, this includes grapefruit, grapes, cucumbers and certain salad greens, like bean shoots and Romaine lettuce. There are also health experts who believe that the water found in whole fruit/foods is more bioavailable than plain drinking water.

•A raw food diet as a whole tends to be more hydrating. Tonya Zavasta has a lot of smart things to say on this topic, as does Melissa Henig.

•Green juice is a mixed bag. I still love my celery juice (thanks, Medical Medium), but some people have issues with oxalates and other plant byproducts, so tread carefully.

Again, I’m not trying to dissuade you from the merits of water – and as far as lifestyle and diet choices go, you have to choose what is best for you and your health. What I’m sharing here is what works for me, and has made a difference in my skin quality.

6. Wear rubber gloves when you clean and wash dishes.

Yes, another, “Duh” statement for the road – but advice I myself did not take seriously until a few years ago, when I complained to my dermatologist about flimsy fingernails that wouldn’t seem to budge, the result of hand washing my dishes without protection. And, if I can make a recommendation: get the good kind, like these. The cheaper, yellow variety tend to fall apart after several wears.

In conclusion: take care of your hands so they can take care of you.

And, please – be sure to keep washing them.

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Published by Karyn Polewaczyk

I'm an East Coast-based creative strategist and writer with a passion for health and wellness. My work has appeared in numerous places – largely, in spaces designed for women - including Refinery29, Jezebel, ForbesWomen and Boston.com, as well as in elevated lifestyle publications such as Boston Common, North Shore and Ocean Home magazines, among others. I've also read or presented at Literary Death Match, Mortified and the Boston Book Festival.

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