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How to Deal with Dry Skin and Cracks from Too Much Hand Washing

Americans are told to wash their hands often to avoid infections. Any truth to it? What about dry skin and cracks from so much hand washing?

Are you washing your hands dozens of times a day? That’s hardly surprising. We are facing a tripledemic with influenza, RSV and COVID-19. Virtually every public service announcement about how to avoid catching the flu involves advice to wash your hands. The CDC says, “washing your hands often can help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the flu.” There’s actually some question about the effectiveness of frequent hand washing, but more about that shortly. One thing that’s crystal clear, however, is the impact of hand washing so often: dry skin and cracks! What can you do to overcome this curse?

What Happens When You Wash Your Hands Frequently?

When you wash you hands over and over again in the winter, you strip away the natural oils in your skin. Couple that with dry air and you have a recipe for serious skin damage. Some liquid soaps may be especially problematic. That’s because the chemicals in foaming agents, detergents and surfactants can be irritating to the skin. If your hands are red and rough it’s hardly any wonder. Is there anything you can do to counteract dry skin and cracks?

Dermatologists often recommend moisturizers that are super greasy. This is supposed to seal in water. Some of the doctor-recommended products include petroleum jelly (found in Aquaphor, Vaseline and Eucerin). Eucerin Original Healing and Aquaphor Healing Ointment also contain mineral oil and lanolin along with other ingredients.

We cannot challenge the experts when they say greasy skin creams work well for rough dry skin and cracks. The only trouble with such moisturizers is that your hands will remain greasy for quite a while. Try typing on a keyboard or touching a smart phone after slathering up and you will know instantly what we are talking about. Some people hate feeling like a greased pig.

Does Hand Washing Help Prevent Catching the Flu?

Just asking such a question is heresy. It is taken as an article of faith by public health officials, TV docs and just about everyone else that the way to avoid influenza is to wash your hands a lot. But is there any solid scientific evidence to support this belief?

Swedish researchers attempted to answer that very question several years ago (BMC Infectious Diseases, Sept. 18, 2014).

They introduced their study this way:

“Acute respiratory tract infections (ARI) constitute a large part of the total disease burden among people in productive ages and cause significant costs for society. Hand-washing is typically recommended as a central non-pharmacological measure against ARI, but the evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly sparse, weak and divergent.”

Did you catch that last sentence? Despite all the admonitions to wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season…“the evidence for its effectiveness is surprisingly sparse, weak and divergent.” 

The Swedish investigators gave questionnaires to 4,365 residents of Stockholm during the winter of 2009-2010. These were people who reported acute respiratory tract infections (ARIs) during a flu pandemic in that country. Here is what the study uncovered:

It didn’t matter whether people washed their hands 2-4 times a day, 5-9 times a day, 10-19 times a day or more than 20 times a day. The authors reported “no significant decrease in acute respiratory tract infections among these different groups.

They noted:

A similar lack of effect was seen for influenza-like illness, and in all investigated subgroups.”

In the discussion section of the paper the researchers reported:

“The overall results of this population-based prospective observational study with adjustments for contact behaviour provide no support for the notion that own habitual hand-washing above 4 times daily confers protection to the hand-washing individual against respiratory tract infection…

“Our negative results may seem counterintuitive and in conflict with the existing literature. However, although many studies conclude that hand-washing should be recommended as a public health measure in the face of threatening upper respiratory tract virus epidemics, the scientific evidence remains unconvincing. “


“We conclude, although with a number of caveats, that an increasing frequency of self-defined hand-washes among healthy individuals does not seem to be associated with a decreasing incidence of ARIs or ILIs [influenza-like illnesses].”

Another Report:

A review of the medical literature published in the Annals of Translational Medicine (March, 2021) concluded:

“A total of eight studies were included in this systematic review, when carefully analyzed showed generally no statistically significant difference in the impact of frequency of hand washing on disease occurrence or symptoms, although hand washing more than 4 times per day may be better than hand washing less than 4 times per day.”

The authors offer a somewhat contradictory conclusions, however:

“The results of this study indicate that the higher the frequency of hand washing, the better the effect on disease prevention.”

In our opinion anyone who is washing hands less than 4 times a day is setting a pretty low bar.

Would Dry Skin and Cracks Benefit from Less Hand Washing?

It seems blasphemous to suggest less hand washing with soap and water. That is, after all, the foundation upon which virtually every anti-flu message is based. And yet if there isn’t a lot of solid scientific evidence to support this practice, why not consider an alternate approach?


Dermatologists we have spoken to often recommend Cetaphil as a non-soap gentle cleanser. Unlike liquid soaps, it does not strip natural oils from the skin and it can be applied and wiped off without using water. It can be especially helpful for removing makeup. One reader shared this:

Candice offers advice to other teachers:

“Start at the source of why your hands are dry and cracking…drying soaps and dry air.

“Bring your own soap to school. Bar soaps are better than liquid for dry skin. I LOVE Neolia, an olive oil-based soap. It is hard to find in stores but you can get it direct from the manufacturer.

“Or try Cetaphil, a skin-cleansing lotion that doesn’t contain soap or detergent.

“Always wear gloves when washing dishes or working with any kind of detergent. Use a humidifier in your home and the classroom.

T.S. suggests an oily natural moisturizer after hand washing:

The best thing is to moisturize following each hand washing, to prevent the problem. I like to put a small amount of olive oil on my cuticles; massage it in, followed by any good, thick moisture cream. The cream mixes nicely with the oil, aiding the absorption.

“If I neglect to do this even once during the winter, I get the cracks and split cuticles.”

Dove Unscented Sensitive Skin Beauty Bar:

We have personally been using Dove bars for decades. One of the grand old men of dermatology, Albert Kligman, MD, tested a variety of bar soaps and reported that Dove stood out as one of the mildest and least likely to cause irritation (Acta Dermato-Venereologica, Jan. 1997). Many years ago Testers for Consumers Union also gave Dove Unscented White their top rating. The manufacturer brands its products “beauty cream bars” rather than soaps. That’s in part because they contain a significant amount of moisturizing cream.

An ordinary moisturizer might not be strong enough when the air is really dry due to indoor heating and frequent hand washing. Yes, we know that we pointed out the lack of scientific support for this practice, but old habits are hard to give up. And you will continue to hear authoritative talking heads insist that you need to wash your hands dozens of times a day.

Does Breathing Spread the Flu?

By the way, why not wear a face mask? That might be a far more successful public health approach to reducing flu transmission. A study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Jan. 2018) suggests that just breathing can transmit influenza viruses to into the air. We’re not talking about coughing or sneezing.

Here is what the University of Maryland researchers reported:

“We found that flu cases contaminated the air around them with infectious virus just by breathing, without coughing or sneezing,” explained Dr. Donald Milton, M.D., DrPH, professor of environmental health in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead researcher of this study. “People with flu generate infectious aerosols (tiny droplets that stay suspended in the air for a long time) even when they are not coughing, and especially during the first days of illness.  So when someone is coming down with influenza, they should go home and not remain in the workplace and infect others.”

I have yet to hear “experts” emphasizing the need to wear a face mask during flu season. Why not?

Urea to Help Heal Dry Skin and Cracks:

You could also try a moisturizer with urea, which improves the barrier function of the skin (Journal of Investigative Dermatology, June, 2012). Research has shown that urea can be a terrific skin moisturizer (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, Nov., 2013).

We are not disinterested bystanders, though. After many years of testing and developing our own brand of skin cream, we have just launched The People’s Pharmacy Urea Skin Relief hand cream. It contains 20% urea.

If you would like to see a video of our excitement, here is a link. Our introductory offer to help heal dry skin and cracks is 25% off the list price! But to get that great discount you must enter the discount code: RELIEF25. One quick warning, though. If your hands get really chapped at this time of year, you may experience some tingling or burning the first few times you apply urea. Please let us know how you make out.

I (Joe) grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Believe me when I say that cow’s udders get red and chapped. That’s why dairy famers used products like Bag Balm and Udder Cream. Bag Balm contains petroleum jelly and lanolin, which makes it super greasy. We tell people to wear cotton gloves after applying Bag Balm because you will grease up everything you touch.

You can learn about the natural product chemist who helped develop The People’s Pharmacy Urea Skin Relief at this link. It took him years to get the formula right. We think it’s important for you to learn how The People’s Pharmacy Urea Skin Relief evolved. It is made by Filltech in Rockwell, North Carolina.

Remember, when you check out of the store you must put RELIEF25 into the box that says: “Discount code or gift card.” Then hit the “Apply” button. This discount is only good through December 31, 2023. We hope that The People’s Pharmacy Urea Skin Relief will help heal your dry skin and cracks.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Xun, Y., et al, "Associations of hand washing frequency with the incidence of illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis," Annals of Translational medicine, March, 2021, doi: 10.21037/atm-20-6005
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