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 had inflammation 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.
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 it's cold and you're going to be outdoors for longer than a dash to a car or to get the mail on cold days. If your hands get wet, dry them, and then apply moisturizer.
If redness, peeling, and tenderness persist, see a dermatologist. They 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.