Frequent hand-washing, a job requirement for all healthcare workers, may cause dermatitis, which can actually make skin more susceptible to infection. Here’s how medical professionals can take care of their hands and their patients.
Everyone has become more aware of the importance of hand hygiene during the pandemic, and it’s a pretty safe bet that all of us have gotten into the habit of washing our hands more often than before.
There are some professionals, however, for whom hand-hygiene has always been essential, such as healthcare workers. The problem is that very frequent handwashing can often lead to severely dry skin, causing it to become irritated, flaky, and cracked, which itself can lead to higher rates of infection.
The official dermatologist name for the red, itchy, and sore skin caused by excessive hand-washing is dermatitis. While washing your hands with warm soap and water effectively scrubs away germs, it also scrubs away the skin’s natural oils and wax that help keep it moisturized. Some soaps also contain ingredients that can cause dermatitis, especially if you’re a person who already has sensitive skin or a skin condition like eczema.
Dry skin picks up more germs than moisturized skin, which is why it’s especially important for healthcare workers to not only keep their hands clean, but to keep them moisturized.
The solution to keeping hands moisturized even with frequent hand-washing is both in the type of products used, and in how you use them.
When it comes to moisturizers, dermatologists recommend creams or ointments rather than lotions, which may contain irritating ingredients like lanolin. An easy way to spot the difference is to look for an ointment that comes in a tube or jar, rather than a pump bottle. Look for ingredients like mineral oil or petroleum, such as Vaseline. If the skin is severely irritated, a doctor may prescribe a topical steroid cream.
The types of products you use to wash and sanitize your hands count, too. For instance, dermatologists advise staying away from soaps that may contain skin-irritating ingredients, like parabens or fragrance, as well as soaps that create too much lather. Cream cleansers may be less drying to the skin but are not antimicrobial, meaning they won’t sanitize the hands well enough for healthcare workers.
Studies show that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are both more effective than soap and water at fully decontaminating the hands, and are less irritating to the skin. As long as it still contains at least 60 percent alcohol, you can also find effective sanitizers that have moisturizing ingredients, such as aloe vera, glycerin, and vitamin E. Moisturizing hand sanitizers may cause less irritation.
The right method
How you wash and moisturize your hands also matters.
The first thing to remember is that there is no such thing as over-moisturizing. You should apply a thick cream to your hands after every time you wash them.
After you wash your hands, instead of waiting for them to be completely dry, apply moisturizer while they are still damp. This will help better lock in moisture. Be sure to work the ointment or cream into your fingertips and around your nails, as well as the rest of the hand. No one likes hangnails, after all.
When using hand sanitizer, wait for your hands to dry completely, then immediately apply your moisturizer or cream.
Taking proper, preventative care of your hands and skin is especially important for those who already have sensitive skin, a skin condition like eczema, or are prone to skin reactions to irritants. Dermatitis is most likely to occur in those who have one of these pre-existing conditions.
In addition to making the skin more susceptible to bacterial infections, dermatitis may also contribute to the development of skin allergies, and healthcare workers in particular are exposed to a plethora of common allergens in the workplace, including nickel, perfumes, rubber, antioxidants, antiseptics, antibacterial soap, and preservatives.
No matter the current state of your skin, keep that ointment at the ready.