How to soothe chapped hands

Janet Zand OMD, LAc

December 29, 2023

If you suffer from dry, itchy hands, winter can be miserable.

And when hands are especially dry, even the gentlest of creams burn your skin. So then what are you supposed to do?

Fortunately, there’s a solution.

To explain how it works, first I have to quickly explain what’s causing chapped hands in the first place. The obvious culprit is the dry winter air, but why does it have such an extreme effect on your hands?

The answer has to do with the strength of your skin’s moisture barrier.

The skin’s moisture barrier protects your skin with a mix of proteins, lipids, and oils. And how your moisture barrier holds up to dry winter air is mostly about your genetics.

If you have a weak barrier, you’re more likely to experience sensitive skin symptoms, such as itching and inflammation. Your hands are also more likely to get chapped in the winter, because the skin on your hands is so thin.

Now, you may not be able to do anything about the skin barrier you were born with, but there’s plenty you can do about chapped hands.

So let’s start with what to do if your hands are already rough, red, and burning...

The most immediate fix is to put petroleum jelly on your hands. You could also use a thick moisturizer that contains heavier ingredients such as dimethicone, cocoa butter, shea butter, or beeswax. Slather it on, and slip on a pair of cotton gloves. Ideally you want to keep your hands moisturized and gloved even overnight.

Now, many people think that putting on some lotion once a day is enough. But that moisture lasts for a very short period of time, and it’s completely gone the minute you wash your hands.

So you want to moisturize before your hands get painfully dry, and you want to do it often.

Easier said than done? Well, one simple trick is to put bottles of your hand cream pretty much everywhere. For example, next to the hand soap in your bathroom, at your kitchen sink, in your bag, in your car, on your nightstand, at your desk, and so on. The more you see it, the more you’ll use it.

Next, make sure your hand cream contains emollients and humectants. Emollients keep your skin soft. Look for ingredients like lanolin, jojoba oil, isopropyl palmitate, propylene glycol linoleate, squalene, and glycerol stearate.

And humectants will draw moisture from the air to your skin's surface. Humectant ingredients include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol, propylene glycerol, urea, and lactic acid.

If you know you’ll be outside for some time, consider applying your hand cream, giving it a minute to sink in, and then topping it off with petroleum jelly or your thickest, richest moisturizer. That way, you can really lock in the moisture. Then put on a pair of gloves or mittens.

Finally, make sure you’re gentle when you wash your hands. Use a mild soap, rinse with warm (not hot) water, and pat them dry.

If you use hand sanitizer, consider switching to an alcohol-free formula with benzalkonium chloride, like One for All.

Benzalkonium chloride is non-toxic, non-flammable, and it doesn’t give your hands that burning feeling like alcohol does. It also doesn’t take much of it to kill microbes.

Alright, so try these tips out, and let me know how it goes!

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