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Hand Washing: Can We Do It Too Much?

keeping skin healthy when we’re constantly washing and sanitizing

Before COVID, you probably didn’t dwell excessively on the cleanliness of your hands. Sure, you washed before eating, after hitting the restroom and after blowing your nose. But touching random things in public or shaking someone’s hand most likely didn’t cause you to fear a potentially deadly disease.

These days are a little different. We wash, wash, wash, sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. So we got to wondering: Is it possible to clean our hands and the surfaces around us too much?

“For short-term repetitive hand washing or sanitizing surfaces, there is no evidence that over-cleaning reduces the immune system,” says Dr. Jane Sadler, who practices family medicine at Baylor Scott & White Signature Medicine – Plano.

But Sadler does advise you to make sure that the product you’re using has low toxicity (here’s some advice on cleaning supplies and household chemicals from the American Lung Association)—and, of course, make sure you don’t touch your eyes if the product is on your hands and keep it away from kids.

When it comes to cleaning your hands, the first choice should be soap and water. If that’s not available, Sadler says hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol will work. “Be sure to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice with the soap, or spread the hand sanitizer in between the fingers and around your nails,” she adds. By the way: Shorter nails decrease the risk for spread of bacteria and viruses.

But while maintaining a robust protocol of washing and sanitizing may not negatively impact your immune system, it can do a number on your skin. You can end up with severely dry hands that could result in cuts or other issues.

Sadler offers these seven tips for keeping your skin supple and soft this season:

1.Cool it down. A lot of us adore a long, hot shower, so this one might be tough. But Sadler says the best thing to do is to use cool or warm water, and keep your shower or bath time to under 10 minutes. Blot skin dry (rather than rubbing), and use a lot of moisturizer while your skin is still moist.

2. Lay off the lotions. Get an ointment or a cream to replace your regular lotion. Sadler points out that lotions have additives that may further irritate and dry your skin. Look for products that contain olive oil, jojoba oil and shea butter. When your skin is really, really dry, you might need something with lactic acid, urea, glycerin, lanolin, mineral oil, petroleum or hyaluronic acid. Your doctor can give you a recommendation.

3. Send away the scents. Scented skincare products can irritate your skin too, including deodorant soaps. Those kinds of products could have alcohol or other ingredients that will not help dry skin. “If you are using topical retinoids or alpha-hydroxy acids, hold treatment for a few days in order to allow your skin to retain its natural oils,” advises Sadler.

4. Cover up. Pick up some moisturizing gloves and socks to wear overnight to help skin retain moisture.

5. Keep the cream close. Many of us never, ever go anywhere without hand cream and lip balm, and Sadler says that’s the right idea. If you keep those items with you, you can keep your hands and lips from drying out.

6. Wash and wear your clothing with care. The way you dress and take care of your clothes matters. If your skin is dry and sensitive, consider a hypoallergenic laundry detergent. Also, a silk camisole and other silk undergarments are less likely to rub against irritated skin.

7. Fan the flame. Yes, the heater feels so good when the temperatures drop. But that won’t do your dry skin any favors. Sadler says instead, bundle up, and keep a humidifier going.

And one more note: Before treating extra-dry skin on your own, check with your doctor to make sure you’re not actually dealing with an effect of low thyroid levels, autoimmune diseases, psoriasis or eczema.

RELATED: Hand Washing 101

This article was originally published in October 2020.

Image: iStock