Hand Washing Dilemma: Germs Can Get in Through Cracked Skin

“I have holes in my hands!” I told my friend.

Well, they weren’t actually holes that went all the way through. They were tiny openings created by treating my hands with a mixture of Efudex and Dovonex. The treatment coincided with constant hand washing and the naturally dry state of my hands at winter’s end. The skin had peeled off the spots after they reacted to the cream. But the healing process was thwarted by constant irritation of the tender spots.

Washing our hands raw

I worried about this not only because it was uncomfortable but also because I didn’t want any germs to get in. A yoga teacher had underscored this concern when the coronavirus first appeared on the scene. She told the class that one of the ways of staying healthy is making sure we don’t have cracks in the skin on our hands. But of course, all the hand washing fosters these cracks.

In a satirical piece in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs column, John Kenney’s coronavirus guidelines included, “Wash your hands more than you ever thought a person could wash his or her hands. Even if your hands start to bleed. Which they will. It is perfectly normal and not a cause for concern if the backs of your hands begin to get dry or crack or bleed profusely. That’s fine. There’s no law that says you can’t walk around with bloody hands.”

Dry skin and germs

Seriously, though, a UCLA Health news release had this to say: “Ironically, by over-washing our skin, we can develop dry cracks in the skin, giving bacteria an entry point into our bodies.” 1

Sara Hogan, MD, a dermatologist at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, California, was quoted in the news release as saying that suds created by soap, while getting rid of unwanted germs, can also break down the outer layer of the skin. That layer is composed of oils and wax that keep out bad guys while keeping in the skin’s natural moisture. And if you don’t apply hand cream afterward, your skin can get dry, red, itchy, flaky, and, as in my case, cracked.1

Cream over lotion

I walk around with a tube of thick cream, by Weleda, called Skin Food. I try to remember to use it each time I wash my hands. I find the thickness of cream more soothing than lotion. I like creams more than lotions, and dermatologists agree with me.

"Creams are always best for those with extra dry skin over lotions, as they contain more of the moisturizing ingredients and less water," Dr. Caren Campbell, a San Francisco-based dermatologist, told CNN. She also said to try wearing white cotton gloves at night after applying hand cream.2 Another good moisturizer, which my dermatologist and others recommend, is plain old white petroleum jelly (Vaseline).

Here are two other dermatologist-recommended hand creams:2

AmLactin

I already had one on the list, AmLactin. My dermatologist had told me to use it for extremely dry skin on my legs. It works for dry skin but in my opinion, has a sticky icky feeling. So I mix it with a lotion that I got from Bath and Body Works.

EltaMD So Silky Hand Crème

EltaMD So Silky Hand Crème tops the list. I don’t think it’s necessarily in order of preference, but it caught my eye because I already use, and like, a facial sunscreen by this manufacturer. Its ingredients include sclareolide, a plant-derived ingredient that supposedly helps lighten dark spots. That is enough of a selling point for me because, in addition to being rough, the skin on my hands is discolored from years of sun exposure.

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