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Prevent and Soothe Chapped Winter Hands

Dry, cracked hands are a common cold weather complaint. Here's how to get a grip on the problem.

By Shelley Levitt

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

WebMD Feature

Winter is hard on your hands. Smooth, supple, and soft in September, hands can turn red, chapped, and rough by February.

The main culprit? Lack of moisture.

During winter, the humidity in the outside air plunges. Inside, things are even drier, thanks to indoor heating. If you're washing your hands frequently to avoid catching a cold or the flu, you could sap whatever natural oils are left in your skin.

That can leave your hands so dehydrated that they crack, peel, and bleed.

"People will have fissures in their hands and they'll come to see me saying they can't figure out what's happening," says New York City dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin. "It's just extremely dry skin."

The good news, Marmur says, "is once you recognize that, you're halfway on your way to fixing the problem."

Strong or Weak Barrier?

How well your hands can withstand winter's harsh conditions has a lot to do with the strength of our skin barrier, says Charles Crutchfield III, MD, a dermatology professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. 

The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids, and oils. It protects your skin, and how good a job it does is mostly about your genes.

If you have a weak barrier, you're more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin, such as itching, inflammation, and eczema. Your hands are also more likely to become very dry in winter.

If you had from chapped hands last year, you may be more likely to have that happen again every winter.

Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize

To treat parched, scaly hands, you need to replace the moisture that your thirsty skin is missing. Drinking water, experts point out, won't do that.

"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 Reveal More Youthful, Beautiful Skin.

Start moisturizing before there's a problem. "The best prevention is to begin using a moisturizer before your hands show signs of dryness," Marmur says.

Putting moisturizer on once a day is inadequate. "That's probably enough protection for about five minutes," Marmur says.

If you apply moisturizer more frequently, its effects last longer. Five or six applications a day, Marmur says, will provide round-the-clock protection.

To reach that goal, Marmur suggests practicing what she calls "good product placement." Along with keeping a big jar or tube of your favorite over-the-counter moisturizer in your bathroom, stow smaller sizes in your purse, gym bag and on your desk so application becomes a habit.

Remember to rub the hand cream or lotion over your cuticles and nails. "Nails can become dry, just like the skin of the hands," Crutchfield says.

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