Five tips for taking care of your over-washed hands

Keep those mitts clean—but also hydrated.

Every December, it’s exactly the same: Between the cold wind, the snow, and the heating, your skin just seems to say “nope,” and shrivel to death. But this year, in true 2020 fashion, things are actually worse.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a colder, wetter winter in the northern half of the US, and the pandemic is not helping—longer hours in dry, indoor spaces, and frequent hand-washing has been a double-whammy that threatens even the sturdiest of skins. The results can be measured on a spectrum of unpleasantness: from uncomfortable-but-mild dryness to severe dehydration, scaling, and even cracking of the skin.

Because of the… ahem… unprecedented times… we’re living in, your go-to methods might not cut it this year, but some easy tips and tricks might prevent you from feeling like the tips of your fingers are covered in sandpaper.

Swap your soap for a cleanser

Soap is highly effective when it comes to killing germs, bacteria, and even some viruses, but those suds can be abrasive. Just as degreasing dish soap is good at cleaning lasagna off a baking pan, the surfactant agents in hand soap react to fats and oils and make them water-soluble so you can wash them away.

This works great when your hands are covered in grease, but unfortunately your skin’s protective barrier is also made of oils. When you use an abrasive soap repeatedly, you can damage this natural defense, making your skin less effective at retaining moisture. This is not only uncomfortable, but also leaves your hands more susceptible to cracking.

Dr. Mona Gohara, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University’s School of Medicine, recommends replacing your trusty soap with a gentle cleanser that will deposit moisture into your skin and get rid of germs, all in one go. Dermatological brands such as CeraVe, Cetaphil, and Avène, all have great options.

Similar drying happens with hand sanitizer. For fighting COVID, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends hand sanitizers with at least 70 percent alcohol, but this compound dramatically sucks moisture out of skin. Products that hit the CDC’s mark will do a good job getting rid of the virus, but they’ll also turn your hands into the Atacama Desert, so you’ll need something that also has hydrating components.

When in doubt, check the ingredients list and look for words such as ceramides, glycerin, and mineral oils. These will nourish your skin and help it attract and retain moisture by sealing it with a film.

Rub the lotion on your skin—again and again

Whenever you start feeling like your skin is gearing up to cosplay as the Sahara, your first instinct may be to put on some lotion. That’s a good instinct, but doing it once a day won’t make a difference—you must do it after every time you wash your hands, and every other time your skin feels tight.

Having hand lotion readily available at all times will make things easier. Keep a bottle in your bag, a couple by the kitchen and bathroom sinks, and another on your desk or near wherever you work. Carrying one in your jacket pocket is not a bad idea, either.

It’s important to look out for the same ingredients you’d care about in a cleanser: ceramides, glycerin, and mineral oils. If you don’t know where to begin, go for specialized brands—Eucerin is a good example, while Brazilian brand Natura’s hand cream has its own cult following for good reason. If your skin is already cracked or damaged, you might want to focus on repair with products such as La Roche Posay’s Cicaplast hand cream or a classic such as Aquaphor’s healing ointment.

Consistency also matters. Lotions are light and tend to be water-based, while thicker creams and ointments have a higher percentage of fats and oils, which are hydrating and nourishing. Overall, winter weather calls for a heavier cream, but if you find it uncomfortable or just hate having oily hands, lighter gel-like textures may be better for you—though not as effective.

Protect those paws

Hands in knitted mittens holding a disposable cup outdoors.
Listen—they’re cute, they’re warm, and nowadays you can even work a touchscreen with them. Just wear some gloves. Sarune Sedereviciute / Unsplash

This is an easy one: Cover your hands with gloves. That’s it.

Bleach, dish soap, laundry detergent, and other household cleaning agents may be hard on your hands, and even if you don’t normally notice a difference when coming into contact with those products, your skin might be more sensitive than usual this year. Wearing rubber gloves will protect you from any hard chemicals and excess water, so keep them at hand and replace them if they tear—you want to keep those digits nice and dry at all times.

Gloves are also handy when you leave the comfort and warmth of your home. As much as you might consider these accessories an obvious addition to your snow storm attire, don’t wait until it’s absolutely freezing outside to wear them. Cold air wreaks havoc on your skin (frostbite, anyone?) so even if you think it’s totally manageable to leave your mittens at home, just put them on—even thin ones provide some level of protection against the elements.

Bring on the oil

If you want to take a more natural approach to hydration, rubbing oils directly on your skin is a good way to go. But before you run to the kitchen and lather yourself up with bacon grease, know that not all oils are made equal.

People rave about the properties of coconut oil, so that’s a good place to start. Argan oil, sweet almond oil, rosehip oil, and jojoba oil will also work as long as you’re not allergic. To find out, do a patch test by rubbing a couple drops on the inside of your wrist and watching for any irritation or reaction. If the coast is clear after 10 to 20 minutes, you can proceed to massage your hands with your oil of choice.

Mineral oils such as the ones in petroleum jelly have a bad reputation, but Mohara says that’s undeserved: “[Mineral oil] supports the skin barrier and strengthens it, keeping irritants out and water in.”

Some overnight TLC doesn’t hurt

When all else fails, a hydrating night treatment might be in order. Using an abundance of your oil, ointment, or cream, lather up your hands and massage them for 30 seconds to help with absorption.

Make sure you still have some product on your skin, and put on some cotton gloves—the fabric will protect your sheets and keep the product on your hands, but it’ll also let your skin breathe throughout the night. Enjoy your beauty sleep!

In the morning, remove the gloves and wash your hands normally, with warm water and your non-soap cleanser. Your hands should be soft, nourished, and hydrated. Repeat this process two to three times a week as necessary, and look out for any kind of irritation.

Keep in mind that this trick will help you counteract the kind of dryness usually associated with cold weather and regular washing, but will not help you if you have a skin condition. If your hands are excessively dry or itchy, or you experience any type of pain, cracking, or sign of infection, consult with your dermatologist.

Sandra Gutierrez G.
Sandra Gutierrez G.

is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.