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How to heal dry, cracked hands (and avoid having them in the first place)

Not only do frigid temperatures dry the skin but constant washing and sanitizing to ward off germs depletes skin of its natural oils and moisture. Robin Williams/stock.adobe.com
If your hands could speak they’d probably be scolding or pleading with you right about now. They might ask why you don’t wear rubber gloves each and every time you clean the dishes. And why you don’t slather them with lotions throughout the day and rich creams at night. They might even beg for a healing massage with luxurious oils.

Yes, we neglect our hands, which take a ton of abuse, especially in winter. Not only do frigid temperatures dry the skin but constant washing and sanitizing to ward off germs depletes skin of its natural oils and moisture. Also to blame are indoor heating systems that dry out the air in our homes and workplaces. Cracked skin is a real pain, literally, as the fissures are difficult to heal on fingers and palms always in use. Mere movement stings, and heaven help us if lemon juice, vinegar, or an onion comes in contact with the crack.

With the appropriate irritations, from cooking, dishwashing, sanitizers and other chemicals, and outdoor work, anyone can develop dry, chapped hands, says Dr. Madeline Krauss of Krauss Dermatology in Wellesley. There are medical conditions, too, such as eczema and psoriasis, that make skin prone to difficulties, she adds. Allergies to chemicals, fragrances, and cleansers also play a role.

In the kitchen, the first line of defense is protection. That means a pair of heavy-duty dishwashing gloves, says Willa Breese, owner of Kitchen Outfitters in Acton. She swears by True Blues. “They’re heavier than most gloves you find in the grocery store,” she says. The thick vinyl shell is cotton lined and latex free. The rough textured material makes it easy to grip dishes and glassware. “We sell an awful lot of them and people are really loyal to them,” says Breese.


For rubber glove resisters (you know who you are), Breese recommends a long-handled dish brush so your hands won’t constantly be in water. She likes Full Circle’s dish brush with its bamboo handle and tough bristles, but any soap-dispensing dish wand will do. Soaking dirty items in a sink or plastic bin filled with hot sudsy water helps loosen oil and debris so you won’t have to scrub as hard or as long.


Chef Carolyn Johnson admits to working bare-handed when washing pans and wiping surfaces with sanitizing solution. The chef-owner of Boston’s Mooncusser Fish House and Concord’s 80 Thoreau says her hands are red and chapped all winter, and often, her fingertips and calloused palms crack. Sometimes her knuckles bleed. “Lots of handwashing is the number one culprit,” she says. Cleaning chemicals are number two. Some foods, like fish and squash, can make your skin feel tight and dry, she says. “Citrus juice finds every crack.”

While Johnson doesn’t like to use lotion on her hands when she’s cooking, she sometimes rubs them with olive oil and then dons latex gloves. At home, she applies soothing shea butter cream and often wears cotton gloves to bed.

So what are the steps you can take if, despite precautions, your hands are dry, chapped, and cracked? Dermatologist Krauss recommends, first, using oil-based cleansers that are gentle and moisturizing. This isn’t just for people with eczema, she says; it’s helpful for any compromised skin. She suggests products like Eucerin Advanced Cleansing Body & Face Cleanser and CeraVe Eczema Body Wash. Whenever possible, avoid soap from public dispensers and hand sanitizers, which can be extremely drying.

Second, there’s a slew of good hand creams made with proven ingredients that are far better than the lotions of yesteryear. “The newer creams are made to penetrate the skin better,” says Krauss. For severely dry hands, she recommends Eucerin Advanced Repair Hand Cream, CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream, and La Roche-Posay Lipikar Eczema Cream.


Cracked skin requires a two-pronged approach: prevention and treatment. To prevent cracks from forming, Krauss says to wear protective gloves, use the right cleansers and moisturizers, and apply lotions containing glycolic acid or lactic acid, which decreases excess skin build-up. Hard, calloused skin, which has no flexibility, is more likely to crack than soft supple skin. She recommends over-the-counter AmLactin Ultra or Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion for this purpose. (But she warns not to put it on an open crack!)

To treat cracks, which are open wounds, place a small blob of a soothing ointment, such as Vaseline (petroleum jelly) or Aquaphor, on the area and then cover it with a bandage. (Krauss likes Nexcare bandages because they’re flexible and waterproof.) She cautions against using Neosporin or Bacitracin because these are unnecessary antibiotics and many people are allergic to these ointments.

If nothing seems to help, “a dermatologist can prescribe corticosteroid cream to turn around the inflammation,” says Krauss. “One-percent hydrocortisone ointment is available without a prescription, but it should only be used for a finite period of time.”

Many salons and spas treat problem hands as part of their services. Jill Crouch, owner of Brad Duncan Skin Care in the South End, says that with every face and body treatment, they give a hand massage using Environ’s A, C & E oil and hand and nail cream. “The light-weight oil is highly penetrating,” says Crouch. “It relieves dry skin and helps with sun damage.” The hand cream is great for daily use, particularly for cracked cuticles, she adds. Like chefs, she says, “Estheticians are in and out of gloves and washing their hands all day long.”


Chapped hands are also the bane of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and anyone who works outside. At Green’s Hardware in Wellesley, they recommend O’Keeffe’s Working Hands, a pasty, almost dry-textured cream that comes in an easy-to-grip green disk. Rub the cream into dry skin and cracks and let it penetrate for a few minutes before using your hands.

Whether it’s overuse (and abuse) of your hands or genetically sensitive skin, the problem is likely to require constant, daily care. Treat them well, baby them, and your hands will complain no more.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.