Preventing another COVID-19 problem: Skin irritation from hand washing

Tips to keep your hands clean and healthy


Hand hygiene is an essential public health measure in fighting disease spread, especially during the pandemic. More than ever, people are urged to wash their hands regularly and diligently with soap and water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

With more washing, sanitizing and disinfecting, the skin might become dry and develop dermatitis, a skin inflammation that can appear as red, itchy, cracked, or sore skin.

Samuel Hwang, professor and chair of the department of Dermatology at UC Davis Health, shares best practices to help prevent and treat dry skin induced by over-washing.

Excessive hand washing causing skin irritation

The skin works as a shield protecting the body from germs. Its outermost layer has oils and wax to help maintain the skin’s natural moisture.

Using soap and constant scrubbing when washing can irritate the skin barrier, leading to the loss of its natural oils. Many soaps contain ingredients that can trigger dermatitis. This is especially a problem for people with sensitive skin, eczema or a history of allergies to cosmetic products. With time, the skin might develop dryness, redness, itching, flaking, and, in some cases, cracks.

Wash, pat dry, then moisturize

Dry, cracked skin makes it easier for germs to enter the body and cause inflammation. To prevent skin inflammation, Hwang recommends five basic skin-friendly hand hygiene steps:

  1. Use mild, fragrance-free soap to remove dirt.
  2. Avoid using too much soap that creates a thick lather.
  3. Wash with warm, not hot water, for at least 20 seconds.
  4. Pat dry the hands with a towel.
  5. Once hands are dry, apply a moisturizer immediately.

“One cannot over moisturize,” Hwang said. “As people cannot avoid hand washing, it is recommended that they use thick hand cream immediately after washing to keep the hands moisturized.”

Hwang also advises people to use creams and ointments instead of lotions. Petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) is an excellent moisturizer that does not contain skin irritating ingredients such as lanolin and preservatives. They can also use soap rich in moisturizing ingredients such as avocado oil, shea butter and coconut oil.

If the dermatitis gets really bad, a dermatologist may have to prescribe a steroid ointment to reduce the inflammation.