By Anita Mehta, M.D., F.A.A.D.
If there’s one lesson that’s come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that hand hygiene is critical for limiting the spread of disease. Health officials, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), emphasize the need to wash one’s hands regularly. Unfortunately, doing so can cause dry skin and exacerbate certain skin conditions like hand eczema, also known as hand dermatitis.
Irritated Hand Skin Is on the Rise
Hand eczema/dermatitis is more than just dry skin. Although dry skin may be the first sign, hand eczema is also associated with an inflammatory response. How common is it? It can affect anyone whose work is associated with an increase in contact with water, allergens, and irritants, such as healthcare workers, food handlers, hairdressers, and mechanics. And now, with the increase in the number and duration of hand washes as people try to comply with public health recommendations related to COVID-19, we’re treating an increasing number of hand dermatitis cases through our Video Visits and our other virtual health appointments.
The constant scrubbing and rubbing can remove our skin's natural moisture barrier. When natural oils are stripped away, skin turns red and scaly, burns, and itches, particularly in the finger web spaces and on the knuckles, and then cracks and develops painful open sores that can lead to infection.
Taking preventive measures to moisturize your hands after washing them will help. Once your skin is dry and inflamed, the harder it becomes to manage.
Tips to Reduce Hand-Washing Irritation
To help prevent hand eczema/dermatitis, once you’ve washed your hands for the recommended 20 seconds, preferably with gentle and fragrance-free soap, pat them dry rather than rubbing them, which can irritate the skin. Leave a small amount of dampness and then moisturize to seal in the water. Once your hands are dry, apply a hand cream to lock in moisture. Make sure the hand cream you apply doesn’t include irritants, such as retinol, allergens, or fragrances. Petroleum-based creams are usually more effective than lotions.
Because we’re all cleaning and disinfecting surfaces more often, it’s also important to handle cleaning supplies, especially those that contain bleach and other harsh chemicals, while wearing gloves to help protect skin.
At bedtime, gently cleanse the hands and while damp coat liberally with cream or ointment, then pull on a pair of soft, white gloves, if you have them, to allow the moisturizer to penetrate even better while sleeping.
When to Contact Your Doctor
If you’re not getting any relief or open sores aren’t healing, schedule a virtual visit with your Kelsey-Seybold primary care physician or dermatologist who can help get your hands back on track. He or she may prescribe a cream, ointment, or prescription steroid or nonsteroidal medicine, or determine whether something other than frequent hand washing might be the cause of your skin issues.
Dr. Anita Mehta is the Chief of Dermatology at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. Her clinical interests include skin cancer, psoriasis, acne, and eczema. She cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus.