Beauty Expert Gemma Watts shares her go-to methods and products for protecting hands from harsh winter weather and restoring hydration and soft skin.
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“Gem, why are my hands so dry? They’re really sore,” was the first thing he said to me. Immediately behind “Hi!” and well before “How are you?” or “What have you been up to?”
Admittedly, this isn’t the first time this has happened. What is it about hand care that has rendered it more urgent a conversation topic than greetings and niceties?
Our hands are almost constantly exposed to the elements, more so than any other area of our body, so they tend to be the first area of our skin to show signs of dryness.
Beyond that, it’s a timely skin qualm - our skin is infinitely more prone to dryness and irritation in the winter months than in any other season (more on that here), and as a population we’re now washing and sanitising ourselves more than ever before.
To some it may seem commonsensical and to others it may seem unnecessary, but a nourishing hand care routine is the key to keeping the skin on your hands smooth and, more importantly, pain free, this winter.
To understand how to give our hands the care they so need in the winter, it’s worth spending a bit of time on why it is that they can get so dry.
In my opinion, the largest contributing factor to this all-too-common skin woe is environmental aggressors, which is why this question tends to pop up more often in the winter.
Much like our face, our hands (unless you are a glove wearer) are constantly exposed to the elements. In the winter, those elements ebb and flow between cold winter air and dry artificial heating - neither of which are particularly good for the skin, and both of which work to pull moisture from your skin.
The face, however, is slightly less prone to seasonal dryness and irritation than our hands.
Why? Because, generally, we wash our face twice a day and follow that almost immediately with the application of a moisturiser.
Our hands are washed repeatedly throughout the day and, given the couple of years we’ve had, we’re usually following that process up with application of a sanitiser.
There are a number of drying factors at play here - firstly, hot water is more drying than cold water as the heat can damage the skin’s natural barrier, leaving it more exposed to irritation.
Secondly, the frequency of washing is leaving the skin drier and drier.
Thirdly, most effective sanitisers contain antibacterial agents designed to kill germs which, you guessed it, are also drying out that all-important skin barrier.
So what about the “soreness” my friend complained of? My response to his question (behind “Yep I’m good, thanks for asking,”) was “Which hand cream are you using?”
His answer confirmed my suspicions- he was regularly applying a hand cream rich in fragrance. Fragrance, artificial or otherwise, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however if your hands are already chapped and irritated (which suggests that the skin barrier is highly damaged), fragrance is a really common irritant.
This isn’t the case for everyone, however heavily perfumed products can dry out and irritate the skin further, so if you’re finding that some products “sting” a little on application, it’s well worth switching to a fragrance free alternative.
Despite the near constant barrage of external aggressors, there are a few simple steps you can take to keep chapped skin and irritation of the hands at bay, whatever the weather.
Every dermatologist I have ever interviewed has told me that showering in lukewarm water is one of the best ways to avoid dry skin in the winter (although I personally refuse to act on that advice).
The same principle applies to hand washing. I’m not suggesting washing your hands under a freezing cold stream, however I’d recommend slightly reducing the temperature and simply washing your hands for a bit longer than you otherwise would, as opposed to washing them for a short burst under piping hot water.
Unless we’re at home, we’re forced to use whatever soap the office, shopping centre, doctor’s office etc has provided. While this might be a lovely liquid soap, there’s really no way of knowing what’s in it.
It’s safe to assume that it will be effective at killing bacteria, however you can’t tell if it contains any hydrating ingredients without being able to flip over the bottle (and, even then, how many of us are guilty of refilling an expensive soap bottle with a supermarket brand?).
To ensure that your hands are receiving a hit of hydration with every wash, I recommend decanting your favourite liquid soap into a travel sized bottle and taking it out with you.
This is a tip that I really had to train myself to make a habit. We’ve been told to wait until our hand sanitiser dries before applying a hand lotion, so as to not dilute the sanitiser, but how many of us are following through?
I’m often guilty of saying to myself “I’ll apply that hand cream when this sanitiser dries,” then going about my day and forgetting all about it.
Make. This. A habit. Sanitiser takes no more than 5 minutes to dry, and any hard and fast rules about exactly how long you need to wait are a myth - simply wait until your hands are completely dry post sanitiser application, then apply your hand cream.
I like the Grown Alchemist Soothing Hand Cream, however if your skin is particularly sensitive or prone to irritation, I’d recommend picking up a fragrance free option. Cult favourite Waleda Skin Food is free from synthetic fragrance, multi-use and incredibly rich.
We tend to look at hand creams as something we apply as a treatment, rather than a preventative, opting to apply it whenever we notice that our hands are looking or feeling a little dry. Our hands aren’t exposed to harsh environmental aggressors overnight, so why would we apply a hand cream at night?
I like to apply a hand cream before bed for the very same reasons I apply facial skincare of an evening. The night time is when our skin has time to restore, repair and regenerate itself, and our skincare aids that natural process.
I find that if I apply a hand cream at the conclusion of my facial skincare routine (I do this to turn it into a habit- I’m all about routine!), I’ll wake with smoother, more hydrated hands.
Applying a hand cream and allowing it to work overnight can also help to strengthen that all important skin barrier, meaning your skin is better equipped to handle environmental aggressors the following day.