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Can you wash your hands too much?

October 7, 2019 / Duncan Fisher
Handwashing is good … but keep your skin moist.

You’ll be glad to know that October 15th is Global Handwashing Day!

This is a world health initiative sponsored by UNICEF and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and other partners within the Global Handwashing Partnership, and it’s been responsible for improving the lives of a great many people worldwide. If you’re interested in the technicalities of handwashing, and why it’s good from an epidemiological standpoint, you might have a look at their long list of FAQs on the subject. It’s very enlightening.

One subject that comes up, particularly in hospitals and other settings where handwashing happens frequently, is whether it’s possible to wash your hands too much. On this, the American Academy of Dermatology and the British Association of Dermatologists have much to say.

What is the right way to think about over-washing and care of your hands?

No one denies that you have to wash your hands. It helps get rid of germs. But soaps, and shampoos and things like wet wipes, if used in abundance, can remove the protective oils that protect your skin. That can leave your hands dry and irritated. Believe it or not, water alone can do this too. Once that irritation gets started, moreover, your skin is vulnerable to further damage, and a cycle is set for hand dermatitis. If you have any propensity for eczema, allergy, or psoriasis, you can really have problems.

One way around that is to keep your hands moist, with some sort of emollient (or ‘moisturizer’). Make it part of your hand-care routine. All emollients consist of a plant or mineral oil, and a water-based lotion to deliver it and keep it in place. There are many you can buy, and you can try a few to see which ones you like.

How often should you use them? Generally a few times a day – and every time you wash. Emollients don’t stay on your skin long.

Don’t confuse emollients with preparations you may have been given by your doctor if you are a sufferer of a skin condition. Some people with dermatitis are prescribed topical steroids, for example. Steroid creams, as your dermatologist will have told you, are not the same as emollients, and should not be used to moisturise dry skin.

Healthy, but dried-out, skin will respond happily to emollients. Side effects are extremely rare, save for an occasional stinging sensation initially. Emollients don’t cause allergies, as a rule. Some people do report irritation from what they put on, but this is generally sensitivity to a perfume or some other ingredient within the lotion. Simply change emollients if that happens. People with this sensitivity are sometimes advised to switch to paraffin preparations, with no perfumes.

One caution: paraffin can catch fire, so be careful around candles and lighters.

What about washing? Is there a gentle way to do it?

Good practice is to use warm water. If you wash frequently, you might consider a soap substitute. These by themselves can act as moisturizers. You can also use alcohol wipes. These might sting occasionally, but actually, they’re less irritating to skin than soap is. If you do use soap, use the non-perfumed kind. Take care to rinse well around rings and jewellery. Then make sure your hands are all-the-way dry. And put on your emollient.

One more tip, because winter is coming. If you go outside, you’ll do well to wear gloves. That’s because cold air dries your skin quickly.

And that’s it. You do need to wash your hands, but go easy, and always keep your skin moist.

Happy washing, and happy Global Handwashing Day!

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