Dry Skin on Hands: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
They're the first thing you see when you stretch your arms out in front of you. And when you meet someone new, it's normally the first contact you make to introduce yourself.
Your hands are the primary way you experience the world and so it’s no surprise that they are normally the first true marker of your age.
Because they're constantly in use, when it comes to dry skin, hands are the first body parts to suffer.
Exposure to the sun, pollution in the air and not to mention whatever grime is on your phone screen... it's enough to stress out even the most resilient skin.
Left unattended, the skin on your hands can quickly start to dry out, peel and show signs of aging much faster than the other parts of your body.
In an effort to turn back the clock and keep your hands smooth and supple for longer, this is your dry skin hands checklist.
What Causes Dry Skin on Hands?
Unlike the rest of your body, the skin on your hands has a completely different composition.
The palms, for example, are covered by a thick protective layer that is unable to produce sebum. This makes them incapable of naturally replenishing any moisture that may be lost due to frequent hand washing or sweating.
The result for those with dry skin - hands that are prone to cracking, peeling and flaking.
But while your palms may be equipped with a durable, hard-wearing layer, the back of your hands are quite the opposite.
Known as the dorsum, the back of your hands has skin that is far thinner and more delicate. And while there are a few glands in the dorsum able to produce sebum, they are much less than anywhere else on your body.
What you're left with is an area far more susceptible to outside damage and most importantly, unable to lock in vital moisture.
Cut to the recent pandemic and hands have had to work even harder than usual.
Constant washing of your hands, not to mention daily doses of hand sanitizer have done little to lock in those natural oils that are so desperately needed.
Regular soap, for example, especially the harsh antiseptic kind we've been reaching for of late, is primed to target harmful disease-causing bacteria.
Packed with fat-like ingredients known as amphiphiles, these soaps are designed to loosen the bonds between your skin and the virus, while also preventing the virus from multiplying by breaking down the interaction between lipids and proteins.
Great for killing bacteria, but terrible for dry skin.
What are the Symptoms of Dry Skin on Your Hands?
Search for the symptoms of dry skin hands and the results are not pretty: scaly, red skin, fine cracks and irritated, sore hands are the most common symptoms of dermatitis on your hands.
Dry hands essentially mean that your skin is unable to produce an adequate amount of sebum to stay hydrated.
Due to the natural lipids being removed either by over-washing, contact with chemicals or dry air, your skin's protective barrier has been compromised.
This barrier is a mixture of oils, lipids and proteins and when it is weakened, you may notice inflammation on your hands, redness, itching or eczema.
Your skin also becomes very receptive to all sorts of irritants entering. Just what can be done to prevent and look after hands that are dry and irritated?
Your dry hands game plan starts here!
How to Treat Dry Skin on Your Hands
Limit the damage
Listen, there is no getting around it - you need to wash your hands several times a day. But that doesn't mean that dry skin on your hands need to be a given.
As a starting point, try to use a gentle but effective soap every time you wash your hands. Your skin's natural pH value is between 4.5 and 5.75 making it mildly acidic.
In contrast, the pH of most cleansing soaps typically falls between 9 and 12 to make them effective in getting rid of germs.
Get ahead of the curve by using a pH-balanced soap that contains added emollients to nourish and hydrate your skin.
When it comes to washing the dishes and using household cleaning products, these can be the most drying of all.
Be sure to wear gloves whenever using harsh detergents that could irritate your skin; the same goes for surface disinfectant wipes.
While they may be super convenient in a pinch, always make sure your hands are covered whenever you use them.
If you have been working with any cleaning agents, treat yourself to a very rich moisturizer at night.
Slather your hands in a greasy emollient cream before bed and slide on some cotton gloves while you sleep. You’ll wake up to silky soft hands and a huge grin on your face!
Consider your hand washing technique
Next comes the actual method by which you wash your hands. Start by always using warm, not hot water.
Lukewarm water is best to get rid of any germs on your hands while still being kind to your skin too. Be sure to rinse your hands well after washing so that all traces of soap are thoroughly removed.
The spaces in between your fingers as well as the back of your hands contain slight crevices – prime spots for excess soap particles to collect.
Leave the soap particles to dry on your skin and you could experience unnecessary irritation in those little nooks and crannies.
After you’ve thoroughly rinsed off all of the soap suds, lightly pat your skin dry. As satisfying as it may be, avoid rubbing too harshly.
You may just be disrupting your skin barrier and unknowingly allowing irritants into your skin which could trigger the onset of dermatitis of the hands.
And if you’re in the habit of using hot air dryers in public restrooms, stop right now! You’re zapping the moisture from your skin and creating an even drier environment.
Choose paper towels instead and pat your hands dry before applying a nourishing moisturizer.
Choose the right moisturizing ingredients
Now that your hands are clean and properly dried, comes the most noticeable treatment for dry skin hands: moisturizer.
You want to restore your skin's built-in reserves to their maximum amount. It starts with choosing a hand cream packed with skin-soothing ingredients.
We’re talking everything from shea butter and vitamin E to sweet almond and honey.
The main ingredients you want to look for are humectants – those almost-magical particles that draw moisture from the outside air and bind to the water in your skin, so increasing the water content within the outer layer of your skin.
Specifically, the top ingredients to look for are glycerine, ceramides, propylene glycerol, urea, sorbitol and hyaluronic acid.
Not only do humectants attract water molecules from the environment, but they also boost your skin's ability to retain moisture.
Other moisture-locking must-haves in your hand creams are emollients that serve as lubricants on the outer surface of your skin.
That slippery feeling you get after applying hand cream? That’s most likely due to common emollients like squalene, jojoba oil, argan oil and lanolin.
While they may feel a little heavier, these particles go one step further by forming a physical barrier to stop water from escaping from the surface of your skin.
They are also excellent at filling in the gaps between dead skin cells ready to be shed.
It’s also worthwhile to check the list of ingredients on any creams you’re applying.
Dry skin tends to be more sensitive to additives such as synthetic fragrances, parabens, preservatives and dyes.
On super-sensitive skin, these substances have the tendency to irritate and cause tiny abrasions on your skin when applied.
If you’ve been using a hand cream for some time and have noticed a flare-up in redness and irritation, your hand cream could be to blame.
A gentler alternative (or simply if you don’t like the feeling of a heavy moisturizer or you live in a warmer climate), consider using aloe vera as a moisturizer for dry hands.
Not only is it soothing on parched skin, but aloe vera is also known to be an anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial to boot. Look for an over-the-counter aloe vera formulation or apply the gel straight from the plant itself.
Once you’ve found your moisturizing holy grail, remember to actually use it. You want to aim for about five applications per day to ensure all-day protection.
How do you do this?
Keep your moisturizer in your eyesight. Besides the large tub in your bathroom, spread out smaller tubes wherever you are most likely to spot them – in your purse, on your desk at work, in your gym bag and in the car.
When applying the cream, don’t forget to rub a healthy amount on the cuticles and nail beds too.
Chances are you already have a dedicated skincare routine to address the needs of your face and neck, right?
Now apply those same principles to the dry skin on your hands too.
Considering the wear and tear that your hands go through on a daily basis, caring for your hands should be a no-brainer.
As the epidermal layer on your palms is so much ruddier than the rest of your body, it's vital to exfoliate them regularly.
You'll be helping to remove dead skin and boost cell turnover, revealing softer, fresher skin.
For the best results, exfoliate twice per week using a chemical exfoliant just as you would your face.
A great place to start is a hand serum containing alpha hydroxy acid and glycolic acid.
With continued regular use, the dead skin on your hands will gradually resurface and regenerate itself to reveal smoother, more even-toned skin.
Think of it as a facial for your hands! A physical scrub is not recommended on dry skin as it may add even further irritation to your already damaged skin.
But if the skin on your hands is severely dry and damaged, it’s best to steer clear of exfoliating products and amp up the moisture instead.
That means any little cracks and crevices that are tender to the touch or bleeding.
Look for a therapeutic moisturizer specially designed for chapped skin containing healing ingredients like dimethicone, shea butter, cocoa butter or beeswax.
Petroleum jelly is another great soothing balm for rough, damaged skin. Treat yourself to a bedtime treatment before covering your hands with cotton gloves.
And if the tenderness and redness still don’t subside, it’s best to consult your dermatologist. Dry skin on your hands could be a sign of a more serious condition like eczema or psoriasis.
Your doctor may prescribe a treatment of steroid cream to target the inflammation and any underlying issues.
It may also be worth your while to invest in a humidifier to add some much-needed moisture to the air at home.
As the moisture level in the air rises, so too will your skin’s ability to get an added dose of water – good for every part of your body, from dry skin and lips to hair too.
Then comes the true non-negotiable in all types of skincare: sunscreen.
You apply it religiously to your face and neck; your hands should be no different.
As they’re constantly exposed to the elements, the skin on your hands is always at risk of UV damage.
Invest in a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and make of point of applying it to your hands throughout the day - before you leave the house in the morning but also after every single trip to the wash basin.
Look for a nourishing formulation that feels comfortable enough and you won’t mind reapplying constantly.
The best of the bunch will be able to deliver potent skincare ingredients to soften dry and flaky skin, and inject some much-needed hydration back into your skin all while restoring a damaged skin barrier.
An added bonus – you'll be boosting the health of your cuticles plus lengthening the lifespan of your manicure too.