Hand sanitizer greets us at the entrance of gyms, convenience stores, offices, and has become the centerpiece of tables at restaurants. It’s become an essential accessory that everyone wants to have on hand (no pun intended) and is even more important as we head out in public more often.
While hand sanitizer is a necessity to keep ourselves safe and healthy, it does come with a pretty notable drawback that becomes even more pronounced in the winter months: dry skin. Here are the reasons behind this and some suggestions on what you can do about it.
Why do sanitizers dry out your hands?
Hand sanitizer is inherently drying. It uses isopropanol alcohol that breaks down lipid membranes or protein coatings, which destroys the organism in the process. This breaking down of the outer coat or cellular membrane is how sanitizers neutralize germs, viruses, pathogenic bacteria, and all those unwanted organisms on our hands, which is great. However, alcohol also inevitably affects our skin’s lipids and proteins.
You can invest in options that buffer these drying properties with hydrating bases such as aloe or glycerin, but you should also make sure to wash your hands and use sanitizer so that you’re not just relying on the dehydrating agent. “If hands are soiled or have come in contact with any toxins or pesticides, washing with good old soap and water is the best way to go,” explains immunologist Heather Monday, M.D.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to avoid some degree of drying if you use hand sanitizer. “Hand sanitizers that are effective at preventing the transmission of Covid-19 are, by definition, biome-unfriendly. To kill the virus we are all trying to protect ourselves from, they must contain alcohols, which are incredibly effective germ killers, meaning they can kill many disease-causing bacteria and viruses within seconds,” says board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe M.D. “The problem is these types of alcohols do major damage to the natural lipids and fatty acids on the surface of your skin, so they damage your skin barrier.”
How to fix it
We’ve written before about the benefits of diligent moisturizing after washing your hands, however, people are less likely to pull out their hand cream after lathering their hands with sanitizer.
This post-sanitization moisturizing practice, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, will replenish your skin’s lipids and support your barrier structure. “When you use hand sanitizer, apply your hand cream or ointment immediately after the hand sanitizer dries. Because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol to kill germs, hand sanitizer can be very drying,” they say. Just be sure to wait long enough (about a minute) so that the hand sanitizer is fully rubbed in and dried down before applying lotion.
The most effective hand creams will be the ones with robust formulations that address multiple factors of barrier function, like lipids, antioxidants, and biome-nurturing actives. Look for moisturizers with gentle botanical butters, oils, and extracts such as aloe, oat oil, and shea butter that offer conditioning emollients and will feed the moisture barrier. Keep your trust moisturizer in the same places as your hand sanitizer to make it easier to remember.