Washing Your Hands Too Much Can Actually Be Dangerous. Here's How To Protect Yourself
I, like many model citizens, have spent the past two weeks obsessively washing and sanitizing my hands in order to help slow down the spread of Coronavirus. And I, somewhat predictably, have absolutely fucked up my hands as a result. I’ve done a real number on them, guys. They're drier than Jack Dee on a spin-cycle. Maybe you’re in the same boat.
If you have obsessive, germaphobic tendencies, it’s easy to go overboard with the soap and anti-bac—especially when you’re explicitly being told to go overboard by the government for the sake of humankind. But scrubbing your hands to shreds will only leave you more susceptible and create more of a vector for the virus, so it's important to take the right approach. According to the Mayo Clinic, "severely dry skin can crack, allowing bacteria to enter." That's not to mention the deep fissures and bleeding that absent-minded scratching can lead to. That way infection lies.
We’ve all seen the 20-second WHO hand-washing guide a million times by now—usually accompanied by Smash Mouth lyrics—and you should resolutely stick to that. Wash after you blow your nose, cough, sneeze, go outside, or even think about handrails, and give your paws a scrub before and after eating, too. You should keep to that standard.
It’s in the aftercare where you can make a difference. According to Dr. Nick Lowe, Consultant Dermatologist at Cranley Clinic, London, there’s never been a more important time to keep your hands properly moisturized.
“The reason why soap and anti-bacterial gels are so effective is that they damage the lipid membrane of the virus and the bacteria,” he tells me over the phone (because we're all sensibly staying inside, just like you should). “But the barrier of our skin is also largely made up of lipids, oils, and ceramides, so repetitively washing them removes some of that protective oil from the skin barrier. It’s then unable to retain its moisture and becomes excessively dry."
While alcoholic gel is more damaging than soap, both can leave their mark if overused. So what's the solution? Keep a bottle of hand moisturizer by your washbasin and in your pocket at all times. "After you've done your cleansing wash, dab your hands dry and then put on your moisturizing cream."
Lowe recommends products that feature humectants like glycerine and hyaluronic acid that help hold moisture against the skin for longer. “Other ingredients that can be very good are the so-called ceramides that you see in things like shea butter.”
If your hands have become dry and flaky through over-sanitizing, then Dr. Lowe suggests applying a good amount of moisturizer on your hands before pulling on a pair of non-latex gloves, and leaving it to soak in for 30 minutes or more. "Cracked skins leaves you open to infection, so if you're concerned, you could also buy some protective cotton gloves to wear until the condition improves."
But it's not just infection you need to defend against. Studies have found that overwashing can also trigger hand eczema (otherwise known as 'dishpan hands'). To fend it off, non-profit National Eczema Association recommends washing in lukewarm water (contrary to myth, hot water is no more effective than cold in eradicating bacteria) and coating them in moisturizer or vaseline.
But whatever you do, continue to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. You can even have a laugh doing it. Promise.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.