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A Sneaky Downside to Washing Your Hands

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Washing your hands regularly—after using the bathroom, before eating, when you get home after being out, and after touching this super-germy spot—is especially important now, on the tail end of cold and flu season. But all that lathering up may result in a painful problem: irritant contact dermatitis, a reaction characterized by redness, burning, and cracked skin.

This condition has become 4.5 times more common among healthcare workers following interventions aimed at getting them to lather up much more often, new U.K. research shows. “Soap removes the natural oils from your skin,” explains Matthew Zirwas, M.D., director of the Contact Dermatitis Center at the Ohio State University Medical Center. “If you’re washing your hands frequently, you’re removing more oil than your skin can produce, and that can eventually make it dry, rough, and cracked. And once that happens, it can be tough to recover.”

Granted, healthcare workers lather up much more often than most of us who aren’t around sick people every day. (The exception being germaphobes, of course.) But arid, cold winter air can also sap moisture from the skin, and hand-washing could exacerbate the issue. 

If your hands look and feel fine, Zirwas suggests preventing a problem from cropping up by using alcohol-based hand sanitizer gels most of the time. “I usually say to use them five times for every one time you wash with soap,” he says. These don’t strip the oils from your skin, so they’re less likely to cause an issue. (Research from Brown University research backs up his claim.)

But if your hands are already red, dry, and cracked, the alcohol in these gels will likely hurt. If they’re too painful to use, Zirwas advises using the gentlest soap you can find when you wash, applying a good moisturizer after lathering up, and reapplying the lotion every hour on the hour until your skin heals. (He recommends setting a watch or phone timer to remind you to slather it on.) His favorite brands are CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream ($9; drugstore.com), Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream ($5; neutrogena.com), and Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream ($6; walgreens.com). Isn't it time you showed your hands a little love?

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