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During the winter months, you may find yourself struggling to keep your hands moisturized, which can lead to dry, flaky skin. It’s a common issue many people face, and cold weather only exacerbates it, said Dr. Benjamin Ungar, assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
“In general, our skin tends to dry out during the winter, at least in part because colder air is less able to hold moisture,” he said. “Our hands are particularly susceptible because they're exposed to the cold air more than most other parts of our body.”
Cold weather isn't the only factor that causes dry hands. Dr. William Huang, an associate professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology, said the pandemic has caused people to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer more frequently, which can strip the moisture from the skin and sometimes leads to irritation. These factors can cause hand dryness, which ranges 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, Ungar said.
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, including ointments, creams and lotions.
How to shop for lotions and ointments for dry hands
Moisturizing your hands is the best way to help heal — and prevent — dry skin, experts told us. And keep in mind that thicker products are better when it comes to shopping for products that heal dry hands, according to Huang. Thick creams and ointments create a protective barrier around dry skin, which keeps moisture in and helps hydrate your hands.
Huang said that balms and ointments tend to moisturize better than creams and lotions, especially if you’re experiencing more severe dryness. He also noted that you should look for hydrating ingredients in lotions, creams and ointments while you’re shopping, including petrolatum, ceramides and colloidal oatmeal.
According to Huang, a common mistake many people make is washing their hands right after they apply treatments — this doesn't give the lotions and ointments time to absorb into the skin. He suggested applying products overnight and covering your hands with cotton gloves, which allow for “uninterrupted contact with the moisturizer on the skin.”
Best creams, lotions and ointments to heal dry hands
We rounded up a handful of products to help you heal dry, cracked hands, all of which are recommended by the dermatologists we consulted. They’re all fragrance-free, which experts said is important to look for when shopping as fragrances can further irritate skin.
Huang and Ungar both recommended applying Aquaphor Healing Ointment to dry hands. It’s 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.
The experts we spoke to also suggested using Vaseline for dry hands. The brand says it’s made with 100 percent petroleum to lock in moisture. Vaseline comes in jars and is available in multiple sizes.
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.
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.
Aveeno describes this product as a “rich cream.” It’s made with colloidal oatmeal, which the brand says helps create a protective barrier around skin.
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. 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.
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.