Itchy hands? Hand-washing is taking a toll on our skin

Hand-washing and sanitizing against the coronavirus are taking a toll on our hands. 

Dermatologists are seeing some severe dermatitis, due to the skin's natural oils being leeched away. 

"They're really dry, they hurt, they burn," said Evelyn Bell of Novato, holding up sore, discolored hands.

Both she and daughter Taray are suffering. 

"My hands are killing me, but I still wash them and still put sanitizer on them," said Evelyn, who works at Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael.  

Clean hands are a major defense against COVID-19. 

But before the crisis, most people washed their hands 3 to 5 times daily. 

"Now they're doing it 10 to 20 times a day, so you start getting your skin very dry and dehydrated, " said Dr. David Laub, a dermatologist in Mill Valley. 

"Initially your skin will be dry and a little irritated and then eventually it's going to be very itchy," explained Laub.

When natural oils are stripped away, skin turns red and scaly, burns and itches, then cracks and develops open sores that are very painful. 

"Unfortunately, what we're seeing is a lot of hand dermatitis," said Laub, "because of the crisis." 

People who already have excema or psoriasis will be most susceptible, because their skin is already prone to irritation.   

Other candidates: health care workers, mothers of small children, laborers who work with their hands and anyone in public who has to sanitize surfaces constantly.   

Because the alcohol in hand sanitizer is especially drying, it helps to veer more toward soap and water, if hands are hurting. 

"I put Vaseline on them," said Taray Bell, holding up her cracked knuckles. 

"They're still cracking and bleeding and dry even when I put on lotion!"

Experts say look for a moisturizer containing ceramides - a fatty acid that replenishes the skin.

It has healing benefits other products lack. 

But don't expect relief to last, as long as the pandemic has us washing, drying and sanitizing incessantly with no end in sight.     

"Until the the crisis stops and we don't have to wash our hands so much, you'll probably have to be dealing with this, unfortunately," said Laub. 

He notes, on balance, dermatitis is a small price for staying healthy. 

But if it becomes too miserable, cortisone creams and antibiotic ointments, paired with overnight gloves and lotion, are good options to find comfort. 

Debora Villalon is a reporter forKTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU