Like most women, I fret about lines and blotches on my face, but I mostly ignore my hands. Sure, I get a manicure now and then, and I slather on cream when I remember to. But otherwise, I barely give them a second thought. Then one day, after a very stressful period in my life, I looked down and barely recognized them: When had my hands become so paper-dry, wrinkly, veiny, and splattered with spots? For all the TLC I give my face, I realized that my hands were a dead giveaway of my age — 52. (In fact, research shows that most people can accurately guess how old a woman is just by looking at her hands.) I soon grew tired of wearing long sleeves as a disguise, so I resolved to give my hands a "lift." Over six months, I tried a spectrum of at-home and in-office treatments. Here's what I learned from the pros...and what really worked.
DRY, RED SKIN
Skin needs moisture to stay soft and supple. When water in the top layer escapes, the texture becomes flaky. The catch: Water is also skin's potential enemy, because it can wash away the lipids that help hold on to moisture. Excessive hand-washing can strip away these natural oils and dry out hands, as can detergents, alcohol-based sanitizers, and abrasive scrubs. Redness and chapping often follow.
Switch to gentle, fragrance-free hand and dish soaps. To minimize your exposure to water, whenever possible use a non-soap cleanser like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser ($4.49, drugstores), which you can wipe off with tissue, and invest in a good pair of dish gloves.
After washing your hands or having any other contact with water — shampooing your hair or rinsing vegetables, for example — think defensively, and apply moisturizer. Skip lotions, which are light, and go straight to heftier sealants — creams and ointments. In a cream, look for glycerin or petrolatum; Curél, Moisturel, and Eucerin all make good, thick ones. For an ointment, try Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream ($4, drugstores). Too greasy? I rub my fingertips on a hand towel to get the residue off. If you're battling redness, check ingredients for an anti-inflammatory like chamomile or aloe. And keep multiple tubes within arm's reach — in a desk drawer, kitchen drawer, handbag, or car — so you actually use them.
Sometimes hands get so chapped, normal creams won't do the trick. Take mine: They had become chronically red, exacerbated by a prolonged period of constant hand-washing when I was caring for my husband, who was ill with cancer. My skin had become "compromised," as Francesca Fusco, M.D., a New York City dermatologist, put it. I had scoured off its buffering lipids and needed stronger help — a barrier cream with fat molecules called ceramides (lipid-building blocks) and hyaluronic acid, a moisturizer. She recommended CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($15, drugstores), and also gave me a prescription for a more potent hand cream, EpiCeram. They began to alleviate the chapping and redness within weeks.
For maximum absorption, Dr. Fusco recommends wearing cotton gloves overnight; I found it worked — in the mornings, my hands were less dry and less red. Even more effective: gel-lined gloves like Bliss Glamour Gloves ($48, Sephora), which moisturize continuously but are so thick, they make dialing a number or flipping a book's pages a challenge. For more practical (if less spa-like) conditioning, she suggests cutting the fingers off a pair of your nighttime gloves. Wear them over moisturizer, and you can hydrate while you work.