“Winter either bites us with its teeth or lashes us with its tail.” -Proverb
Harsh winters, especially the polar vortex-fueled bitter cold seasons that have been attacking much of the United States lately, take no prisoners when they settle in. Winters can be brutal on sensitive skin, causing itching and irritability during the year’s roughest weather months.
Everyone’s skin is unique and everyone’s skin reacts to winter’s toughness differently. Winter’s cooler air combined with central heating (and the regular moving we do between the two drastically different environments) can cause skin to become dehydrated and possibly even more sensitive (this is why we often get chapped and sore lips during the year’s coldest months). Winter can leave hands dry, chapped, cracked, burned, red and extremely sensitive.
And winter can be extremely rough on children’s hands, which do not have as strong skin barriers (our hands’ mixture of proteins, lipids and oils), and are more susceptible to winter’s wrath.
As we try to defend ourselves against winter’s greatest threats – namely, germs, colds and the flu – we need to be especially careful and aware of how the hand hygiene products we use and the frequency with which we use them affect our skin.
What does winter do to our hands:
Smooth hands know no fury like an angry winter.
Hands that are smooth, supple and soft in September can look like a logger’s come February: red, chapped and rough. The main reason: Lack of moisture. Frequent had washing can leave hands so dehydrated they crack, peel and bleed. The trick, says New York City dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD (author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin), is identifying the problem: Dry skin.
“People will have fissures in their hands and they’ll come to me saying they can’t figure out what’s happening,” Marmur said. “It’s just extremely dry skin … once you recognize that, you’re halfway on your way to fixing the problem.”
For more serious problems, the best way to determine if you or your child has sensitive skin or a skin condition requiring special attention or medication is to consult a dermatologist.
Smart winter hand cleaning:
Proper hand washing is our best defense in winter against viruses and bacteria that can make us sick. But wetting and drying hands frequently can remove oils in our skin, drying them out and making them increasingly prone to redness and cracking. The cruel irony here is the very products designed to clean hands can change the pH of skin and remove its protective lipids in the process.
Winter’s cold, dry air makes hands more prone to dermatitis and cracking. But nothing dries out skin in the winter more than frequent contact with water, according to Jim Mann, executive director of the Hand-washing for Life Institute. Mann recommends hand sanitizers as a viable winter alternative in between washing hands with soap and water. Alcohol sanitizing emulsion gels complement soap and water programs and are effective alternatives to water-activated cleansing agents. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can sting and irritate damaged hands, but effectively protect against diseases – particularly America’s scariest virus targeting children this winter – norovirus.
And Mann says moisturizing alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less likely to dry out hands than frequent winter contact with soap and water.
“Hand sanitizers are criticized for drying the skin; it seems like if they have alcohol in them they must be drying,” Mann told CleanLink.com. “But that’s just not true.”
Investigating Hand Sanitizer, hand lotion and body wash ingredients:
Checking a product’s ingredient list – especially for products you’re using for the first time – is essential, especially for children. Artificial perfumes, dyes and harsh chemicals are known skin irritants. Web MD advises “skin-friendly” products contain only a few ingredients and little or no fragrance. People with especially sensitive skin should avoid products containing alcohol or retinoids or alpha-hydroxy acids (commonly used in anti-aging products).
Bio-based hand hygiene products with safe and simple ingredient lists, like B4 Brand’s Avant Alcohol-Free Instant Hand Sanitizer (which features the safe and effective antiseptic Benzalkonium), are great options for sensitive skin.
Knowing What Products Are Sensitive Skin Friendly:
Safe Sensitive Skin care products labeled “hypoallergenic” are designed for sensitive skin, but have not been verified by the Food and Drug Administration. There are no federal standards governing manufacturers’ use of the term “hypoallergenic,” so companies can define the term anyway they’d like.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Specialized Information Services group’ online Household Products Database allows consumers to look up products by brand name to see what’s in them and whether they contain skin irritants.
Services group maintain a Household Products Database online. You can look up products by brand name to see what’s in them and whether anything they contain could irritate your skin.
Winter Hand Health Tips:
Other effective methods to prevent hand dryness, flaking, itching and cracking in winter include:
- Not overheating your home.
- Taking warm – not hot – baths and showers, and using a soap-free cleanser.
- Keeping your hands moist by using hand moisturizers containing skin-friendly products like petrolatum, mineral oil, linoleic acid, ceramides, dimethicone or glycerin. Keep moistures in your purse, backpack and bathroom for easy access.
For moisture is better than water for parched, scaly and dehydrated hands.
“It’s the moisturizer applied directly to the skin that will keep water from evaporating and give your skin a healthy, dewy appearance,” says dermatologist Amy Wechsler, MD, author of The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Reverse Stress, Aging and More Youthful, Beautiful Skin. “Nails can become dry, just like the skin of the hands.”