10 steps for preventing hand allergies during Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a drastic change in our lives. We are not just confined to our homes, but also doing more household chores than we used to. From washing utensils to cleaning our homes, our hands are being exposed to different types of irritants day in and day out. In addition to this, both doctors and the government, have emphasized that regular hand washing and using alcohol based hand sanitizers are paramount to prevent the spread of virus.

Caring for our hands, a versatile tool that it is, is very important in these times. Complaints like dryness, cracks, scaling and painful fissures on the hands due to repeated hand washing and exposure to soaps/ detergents have been on the rise. Patients with pre-existing problems like atopic eczema, hand allergies and psoriasis are finding it harder to manage their skin health.

Why does hand washing dry our skin?

The upper most layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum has a “brick and mortar” arrangement. The bricks, made up of a protein rich material are glued by the mortar, composed of lipids. This arrangement forms the “skin barrier”, preventing water loss from inside the skin. It also limits allergens and irritants from entering the skin.

When soap interacts with the skin, it not only disintegrates the dirt and the virus, but also can disrupt the lipid layer of the skin. This weakens the skin barrier making the skin lose its softness and allows allergens to enter the skin easily.

Here are 10 steps that you can follow to ensure that your hands are well protected during this tough time.

1. Hand washing

There is no escaping from hand washing with soap and water. Use a syndet based bar or a soap free cleanser that is free from harsh surfactants. Pick one that does not have any

extra antibacterial agents, perfumes and colours as these can irritate the skin further. Antibacterials in soap like triclosan have no role in protecting the skin against viruses and can dry the skin further. Do not wash hands with additives like chloroxylenol (Dettol). They are extremely harsh on the skin. Use cold water or lukewarm water. Do not use hot water to wash hands as heat can further strip away oils from the skin.

2. Moisturize

Apply a generous amount of a thick moisturizer within 3 minutes of patting your hands dry. This ‘3-minute’ rule will help to lock in the moisture. A moisturiser fills the gaps between the skin cells, prevents moisture loss and also draws moisture from the surrounding atmosphere and holds it inside the skin. Thus, it repairs the barrier that can get broken down by repeated soap exposure and makes the skin smooth and soft. A moisturiser can be as simple as petroleum jelly. But for a cosmetically more appealing one, look for ingredients like white soft paraffin, squalene, dimethicone, vegetable oils like coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil, shea butter, cocoa butter and pyrrolidone carboxylic acid.

3. Do not scrub your hands with a loofah or pumice stone to remove thick skin. This can deepen fissures and introduce infection. This can harm the skin barrier further and worsen dryness.

4. Keep a jar of moisturiser near every sink in your house, like your kitchen, dining area, bathroom and also on your bedside table. Make it a habit to apply the same every time you wash your hands. This is especially important for patients with pre-existing hand eczema. At bedtime, use cotton gloves after moisturising your hands to seal it in.

5. Limit wet work like washing utensils/ clothes to less than 15 minutes at a stretch. Studies have shown that exposure to water to more than 15 minutes can cause significant damage to the skin barrier. Washing with running water is considered less detrimental than immersing hands in a sink filled with soapy water.

6. Remove rings before washing vessels or clothes. Detergents can stay in the crevices and continue to irritate the skin even after the wet work is over.

7. Use cotton gloves under nitrile gloves while doing wet work of any kind. Using vinyl or nitrile gloves alone has shown to increase the moisture loss from inside the skin. A cotton liner helps to prevent this. Latex and rubber gloves are associated with allergies and hence it is better to avoid them.

8. Wear gloves while cutting citrus fruits, papaya, pineapple, ginger, garlic and onions. The juices from these food items can cause severe stinging and burning if your hands are dry or cracked. They also worsen eczema. Make sure that the gloves fit your hands well and do not allow the juices to seep inside.

9. Avoid contact with polishes (wood/ brassware), varnish, hair dyes, turpentine, etc. While there is plenty of free time to indulge in hobbies during this lockdown period, chemicals can worsen hand dryness and induce allergies.

10. Consult your dermatologist if you notice painful/ bleeding fissures, thick patches and dryness that does not abate with the above measures. Do not self-medicate with steroid creams or over the counter medications.

A few minutes of extra care will go a long way in keeping your hands soft and supple.

Dr Preethi Nagaraj
Dr. Preethi Nagaraj is a senior dermatologist, nature lover and a travel writer. A firm believer that ‘the key to healthy skin is a healthy diet and a fit body’, she is the medical director of Twacha Skin and Hair Clinic, Kochi. She regularly blogs about skin and hair issues on her website kochidermatologist.com

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