5 Side Effects of Washing Your Hands So Much
From hangnails to dry skin, here's how to deal with the downsides of frequent hand washing.
You've probably washed your hands more in the past couple months than ever before—and your hands are feeling it. With the coronavirus pandemic still going strong, hand washing continues to be imperative—a 20-second cleanse with soap and water can kill the virus, helping to prevent it from spreading. The bad news is that all that extra scrubbing can lead to some unfortunate side effects. Here are five you should be aware of, and what you can do to deal with them. And to learn more about the alternative to hand washing, check out Does Hand Sanitizer Work? It Can Be Harmful to Your Health.
Washing your hands so much can lead to incredibly dry skin for one simple reason: "When we wash our hands, we're not only removing impurities—we're removing oils, too," says Brendan Camp, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. "Natural oils on our skin help retain moisture and keep our hands soft, smooth, and hydrated. When we use hot water, harsh soaps, or lots of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, we strip the skin of oil."
To combat that dryness, make sure you're moisturizing your hands just as much as you are washing them (if not more!), which replenishes the skin barrier.
When your dry skin gets severe, it can develop into a more serious skin condition. "Eczema is a skin rash characterized by itchy, red, and rough patches of skin," Camp says. "It's often precipitated by overly-dry skin. For example, asteatotic eczema is eczema caused by a lack of oil on the skin."
Luckily, the problem is easy to prevent, he says. "Using thick moisturizers, and even wearing cotton gloves to bed over a layer of ointment or cream, are ways to prevent eczema." For some tips on combating eczema and dry skin, check out 7 Things You Should Be Doing to Deal With Your Dry Hands.
Dry skin may be the least of your worries when it comes to the side effects of washing your hands so much. You may also be putting yourself at risk for an infection.
"When the skin is dry, it's because there's a lack of oil in the top layer of skin, also called the stratum corneum," explains Camp. "Oils in this layer contribute to the formation of an impermeable barrier that keeps water in and pathogens out."
Unfortunately, Camp says, when the composition of the barrier is disrupted by excessive washing, it predisposes the skin to infections from bacteria. That's why it's so important to keep your skin moisturized. When you have dry, cracked skin, you're increasing your risk of allowing bacteria, viruses, and germs to enter and cause an infection. For things you need to avoid touching, check out 7 Items You're Carrying That Are Coronavirus Magnets.
If you've been experiencing more hangnails than normal, excessive hand washing is likely the culprit.
"Hangnails occur when the cuticle—the thin layer of skin covering the base of our fingernails—dries out, curls up, and separates from the nail," Camp says. "They're painful, unsightly, and can expose raw areas of skin that are more susceptible to infection."
When you're moisturizing your hands, Camp recommends using a thick ointment or cream on your cuticles so you can keep them soft and hydrated. And if you're aching for a manicure, check out When Will It Be Safe to Get Your Nails Done? Experts Weigh In.
Brittle nails are another bothersome side effect of constantly washing your hands.
"Onychoschizia is a term that refers to horizontal splits in the nail, and it's most easily seen in the tips of nails," says Camp. "Also referred to as peeling nails, this condition occurs from the frequent wetting and drying of the nails."
Over time, all that washing can remove the natural moisture of the nail, making it more susceptible to cracking and splitting. That's why Camp recommends using moisturizers, wearing gloves when doing the dishes, filing with glass nail files, and applying nail lacquers or hardeners. And for more situations in which you should and shouldn't be wearing gloves, check out 10 Awful Mistakes You're Making With Your Gloves Every Day.