Our hands just may be the busiest parts of our body, so when the skin there is dry, cracked, and painful, it can be hard to ignore.
What's causing your dry hands? Chances are good it's your environment. Cold winds can dehydrate skin; cold and flu season means washing up frequently; and some careers may mean constant exposure to skin-parching chemicals or repeated submersion in water.
We can't banish cold weather or stop washing our hands, so what can we do to help soothe chronic dry hands?
Tips to treat chronic dry hands
• Protect your hands. If your hands are constantly exposed to irritants, protect them. Wear rubber or latex gloves when possible.
• Wash up wisely. Even if you've got chronically dry hands, you don't want to skimp on keeping them clean. After all, regular thorough hand washing is one of the best ways to foil flu, steer clear of colds, and avoid a host of other contagious illnesses.
The key is to wash gently. That means using warm water, not hot. Hot water strips the skin of its natural, protecting oils. And if you've got dry hands, chances are good it's the tops that are especially parched. That's why some dermatologists suggest scrubbing just your palms when washing, if hands are particularly dry.
• Use a gentle cleanser. Avoid using deodorant, antibacterial, foaming, or scented soaps, all of which may contain additives that strip fats from your skin -- fats that help hold in much-needed water. Look for mild soaps like Aveeno, Cetaphil, Dove, or Neutrogena, or opt for a soapless cleanser instead. You'll also want to steer clear of alcohol-based toners and astringents, or products that contain alpha-hydroxy acids (found in some anti-aging creams), which can also lead to irritated, dry skin.
• Moisturizing your hands is a vital part of relieving achy, dry skin, but not just any moisturizer will do. Some are made mostly of water and so may not help lock in moisture; focus instead on oil-based moisturizers. Ointments tend to be the oiliest emollients, followed by creams, while lotions contain the most water. A moisturizer doesn't have to be expensive to be good. Look for products with:
• Petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and lanolin, all of which trap water in the skin
• Lactic acid and urea, which can help soothe severely dry skin
• Glycerin and dimethicone, which draw water to the skin
• Hyaluronic acid, which can help skin retain moisture
Once you've found a moisturizer you like, use it often -- after each hand washing at least, or any time your hands feel itchy or dry.
• Wear gloves. We use our hands all day every day, so it's hard to make moisturizers stay put. That's why it's a good idea to moisturize well at night, as you wind up your day, then wear cotton gloves for 30 minutes or more to help retain your preferred emollient.
When to see a dermatologist
If your hands are still dry despite following these tips, it may be time to talk to a dermatologist.
Not only can a dermatologist determine whether your dry skin is caused by an underlying condition like eczema, he or she can also prescribe stronger ointments and creams to help treat dry, irritated skin -- and help you get the relief you need.