What does nonstop handwashing
do to your hands?
What does nonstop
handwashing do
to your hands?
What does nonstop
handwashing do to your hands?

Hot water and soap is keeping us healthy, but it can wear down our skin. We ask a UW Medicine dermatologist for help.

Interview by Catherine Arnold | Illustration by Curtis Dickie | May 15, 2020

Lately, we know the drill—wash our hands with soap, and possibly an alcohol-based sanitizer when no sink is on hand; repeat ad infinitum. Our mitts are showing the signs.

“My hands are looking the worst they’ve looked,” agrees Dr. Lisa E. Maier, a UW Medicine dermatologist and a clinical associate professor in the Division of Dermatology.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be relieved from sink duty anytime soon, so we talked to Dr. Maier for some tips.

1. Are there any skin-health side effects of washing our hands so often?

It’s true that washing our hands a lot, or using alcohol-based sanitizer, can damage the skin barrier. We need to do it anyhow, of course, to minimize our chance of getting COVID-19. But then we need to repair the damage, so we aren’t prone to developing hand eczema or skin infections if microbes enter the cracks.

2. How would you improve the hand-washing experience?

Try not to use hot water. Warm is fine. Gently pat hands dry.

3. Are there any creams you like?

Personally, I think thicker moisturizer works better. Creams and ointments are better than thinner lotions. Put on a good layer immediately after washing hands.

If you can tolerate it, use petroleum jelly or something similar like Neutrogena’s Norwegian Formula hand cream. I also like anything containing ceramides, waxy lipid molecules. These are lipids we naturally have on our skin. One example is CeraVe brand, but there are others.

4. What if you need a little extra?

If your hands are staying irritated, it’s helpful to use a thick moisturizer (Vaseline, etc.) at bedtime, then put white cotton gloves or socks on your hands and go to sleep. This will help the moisturizer penetrate your skin.

5. Anything to avoid?

If you have sensitive skin, try to find products free of fragrances and dyes. Also, avoid anything with alpha hydroxy acids, salicyclic acid or retinol, as this will likely irritate your sensitive skin more.