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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.

Choosing the Right Moisturizer

You'll find many hand creams and body lotions on your drugstore shelves. Wechsler says to cut through the clutter by remembering that just two types of ingredients do most of the work when it comes to keeping your skin soft and hydrated: emollients and humectants.

Emollients act as lubricants on the surface on the skin. They fill the crevices between cells that are ready to be shed and help the loose edges of the dead skin cells that are left behind stick together.

"The slippery feeling you get after applying a moisturizer is most likely coming from emollients," Wechsler says. "They help keep the skin soft, smooth, and pliable." Look for ingredients such as lanolin, jojoba oil, isopropyl palmitate, propylene glycol linoleate, squalene, and glycerol stearate.

Humectants draw moisture from the environment to the skin's surface, increasing the water content of the skin's outer layer. Scan the ingredients label for common humectants such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, propylene glycerol, urea, and lactic acid.

Thicker Products for More Damaged Skin

If your hands go from just being dry and rough to having little cracks, or fissures, and are tender or bleeding, it's time to move on to more therapeutic moisturizers.

Petroleum jelly is a reliable standby. Or choose a thick, rich moisturizer in a formula that contains heavier ingredients such as dimethicone, cocoa or shea butter, or beeswax.

Slather on at bedtime, slip on a pair of cotton gloves or socks, and keep on overnight.

How to Wash Your Hands

To protect your hands while you're protecting your health with frequent hand washing, choose a mild soap, use warm not hot water, pat your hands dry and apply a moisturizer right away.

If you've got severely dry hands or you wash your hands a dozen or more times a day, substitute a hand-sanitizing gel or wipes for some of the soap-and-water sessions.

"These alcohol-based sanitizers do dry the skin," Marmur says, "but for people who do a ton of hand washing -- whether they're doctors, moms, or dog-walkers -- it's actually a bit gentler on the skin than soap and water."

Consider a Humidifier

Using a humidifier can also help your skin.

The higher humidity levels will not only salve your super dry hands, they'll help ease dry itchy skin all over your body (including chapped lips) and soothe a stuffed up nose.

Be sure to maintain the appliance (and clean it) regularly, so it doesn't release bacteria or mold into the air, Marmur says.

Put a Glove on It

Wear gloves or mittens if you're going to be outdoors for longer than a dash to a car on cold days. If your hands get wet, dry them, and then apply moisturizer. 

If redness, peeling, and tenderness persist, see a dermatologist. He or she can prescribe a steroid cream to help fight inflammation, and also check on whether your dry hands may be due to a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis.

If your skin is healthy, basic care -- resisting the urge to warm up in hot water and keeping simple, effective remedies on hand -- you can bear with winter until spring's warmth arrives.

Brush Up on Beauty

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