Keeping your hands moisturized is a more prominent concern for many during the colder months, but it’s not the only factor that leads to dry, flakey skin. Washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and doing dishes can also strip the moisture from the skin and sometimes leads to irritation. The resulting hand dryness can range in severity from a few flakey patches to dermatitis, a type of irritation that may cause cracks in the skin and make you more prone to infections, said Dr. Benjamin Ungar, assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
If you’re suffering from dry hands, we talked to dermatologists about the best ways to treat them, as well as steps you can take to avoid irritation in the first place. We also rounded up expert’s favorite products for treating dry skin, and some ointments, creams and lotions we’ve tried ourselves.
The best creams, lotions and ointments for dry hands
Moisturizing your hands is the best way to help heal — and prevent — dry skin, experts told us. And there are a few factors to think about while shopping:
- Thicker products are better when it comes to shopping for products that heal dry hands, according to Dr. William Huang, professor of medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine’s dermatology department. Thick creams and ointments create a protective barrier around dry skin, which keeps moisture in and helps hydrate your hands, he said. Balms and ointments tend to moisturize better than creams and lotions, especially if you’re experiencing more severe dryness.
- Look for hydrating ingredients in lotions, creams and ointments while you’re shopping, including petrolatum, ceramides and colloidal oatmeal, Huang advised.
- Try to opt for fragrance-free products. Experts said fragrances can irritate the skin, especially if you have sensitive or eczema-prone skin. However, if you like fragranced products and you don’t have sensitive skin, experts told us you should be fine as far as irritation goes.
With this expert guidance in mind, we rounded up a handful of products below to help you heal dry, cracked hands. We separated them by expert picks and those recommended by Select staff.
Expert-recommended creams, lotions and ointments for dry hands
Aquaphor says its ointment is formulated with petroleum to heal skin, as well as moisturizing panthenol and glycerin, according to the brand. You can purchase Aquaphor in tubes and jars, and it’s available in multiple sizes.
Vaseline says it’s made with 100% petroleum to lock in moisture. The healing jelly comes in jars, spray, tubes and sticks and is available in multiple sizes. I use the brand’s Body Balm Stick to apply Vaseline to patches of dry skin on the backs of my hands and knuckles. The balm stick helps me target specific areas that are usually the most irritated during the winter.
CeraVe Healing Ointment is a balm made with petroleum, hyaluronic acid and ceramides to hydrate and restore the skin’s barrier, according to the brand. CeraVe says it's safe to use on all skin types and has a non-greasy feel.
Aveeno describes this product as a “rich cream.” It’s made with colloidal oatmeal, which the brand says helps create a protective barrier around the skin.
EltaMD says its So Silky Hand Créme has a non-sticky formula and is designed to moisturize skin for up to 12 hours. The lotion is formulated with vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps reduce signs of aging, the brand says, as well as ceramides to help repair the skin’s barrier.
Neutrogena’s Norwegian Formula Hand Cream contains glycerin, which allows the skin to retain moisture, according to the brand. Neutrogena says its formula is highly concentrated to help hydrate skin and relieve itchiness, irritation and roughness on hands.
Select staff-recommended creams, lotions and ointments for dry hands
Eucerin’s Advanced Repair Hand Cream is thick and rich, and I use it when my hands are severely dry or cracked. I slather it on before I go to sleep and the next morning I notice significant improvement – my hands are softer and don’t hurt as much. The cream contains moisturizing ceramides and is designed to quickly absorb into the skin, the brand says.
Lauren Swanson, Select editorial director, recommended O’Keeffe’s Working Hands Cream, which the brand says repairs “extremely dry, cracked” skin. The cream creates a protective layer on the skin’s surface to lock in moisture and keep hands hydrated, according to O’Keeffe’s.
Deborah Lippman’s hand cream — which Swanson recommends — moisturizes skin and protects it from sun damage with its SPF 25 formula. The cream is made from ingredients like shea butter, avocado oil and jojoba oil. For maximum sun protection, the brand recommends applying the hand cream 15 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapplying every two hours.
This hand cream from L’Occitane gets its cherry blossom scent from cherry extract. It has a non-greasy feel, the brand says, and is made with shea butter to moisturize skin. Select editorial operations associate Rebecca Rodriguez said she loves the fragrance this hand cream leaves behind, and that it's very smooth and seeps right into her skin.
Swanson also recommended Ten Over Ten’s The Heroine cream. It includes hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and fatty acids from sunflowers, as well as antioxidants and vitamin C to brighten skin and fade dark spots. Ten Over Ten says the cream softens and smoothes skin, and recommends using the product at least twice a day.
Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve — recommended by Select reporter Harry Rabinowitz — is formulated with botanical oils and natural wax derived from olive to soothe dry, cracked skin, according to the brand. Kiehl’s says the salve forms a protective barrier on skin to prevent moisture loss. “I like that Kiehl’s is easy to spread, relatively unscented and leaves a feeling of lasting comfort and hydration,” Rabinowitz said.
I don’t like rubbing cream all over my hands while working because it often transfers onto my computer while typing. Jones Road’s Hippie Stick Everywhere Balm solves this problem. I can exclusively apply the balm — which is similar to a sunscreen stick — to the back of my hands to target specific dry areas. The balm has a buttery feel and has a minty scent due to the essential oils it's formulated with. Jones Road says you can apply the balm to any area on your body that needs moisture, like your heels, elbows, face and more.
What causes dry hands?
Not only is dry, irritated skin uncomfortable, but it can also make us more prone to skin infections. “Our skin is our natural barrier,” Huang said. “We use our hands with the world around us, and when that barrier is compromised, this can lead to breaks in the skin, fissures and open cuts and sores.”
People are especially prone to dry hands in the winter because colder air is “less able to hold on to moisture,” Huang said. “Our hands are particularly susceptible because they're exposed to the cold air more than most other parts of our body.” And as the weather gets colder, we turn up the heat in our homes, which Huang said reduces humidity indoors. Paired with exposing our hands to frigid temperatures outdoors, this causes our skin to dry out.
Hunag said dry hands used to be more of a concern for people who work in healthcare and food service industries, as they have to wash and sanitize their hands more often compared to the general population. But “the Covid-19 pandemic had shifted our general habits of washing our hands and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer more frequently,” Huang explained. Constant soap and water use and the high alcohol content in hand sanitizer has led to more people searching for ways to keep their hands hydrated year-round.
Expert tips for preventing dry hands
- Let creams, lotions and ointments do their job: A common mistake many people make is washing their hands right after they apply cream, ointments and lotions — this doesn't give lotions and ointments time to absorb into the skin, Huang said. He suggested applying products overnight and covering your hands with cotton gloves, which allow for “uninterrupted contact with the moisturizer on the skin.”
- Don’t wash your hands with dish soap: “Dish soap is a no no,” Huang said. “It’s way too harsh on the hands.” With that being said, buy hand soap specifically designed for your hands and choose options that are free from fragrance, perfumes, alcohol, parabens and formaldehyde, he said. A mild hand soap is best, and Huang also noted that you should wash your hands with warm – not hot – water. Ungar recommended buying hand soap made specifically for sensitive skin if dryness is a concern.
- Wear gloves while doing dishes and when it’s cold outside: Gloves create a barrier between your skin and external elements that may irritate it over time like water, soaps and frigid air.
What to avoid when treating dry hands, and when to see a doctor
Ungar recommended avoiding fragranced products, as they can further irritate dry hands and sometimes be a trigger for dermatitis. And while he emphasized the importance of hand hygiene, Ungar said there’s a difference between regular cleaning and overwashing, which should be avoided as it’s likely to dry out your hands more quickly. While experts agreed that dry hands can mostly be treated at home using products like those mentioned above, Ungar said it’s important to see a dermatologist if you’re experiencing excessive pain and irritation.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Benjamin Ungar is an assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
- Dr. William Huang is a professor of medicine in Wake Forest School of Medicine’s dermatology department.