Why do hands become dry, shrivelled and smooth in the winter?

“…I can’t hold on to anything. I either can’t grasp it or it slips out of my hand.”

Cold by The Old Adalie Plain, on FlickrDry, chapped hands are a common problem in the winter. I suffer with painful and itchy hands when the weather’s bad, so you have my true sympathies. The reason for our affliction is simple: the skin has lost too much of its natural moisture.

In wintertime, the air is outside cold and dry. It is the atmosphere’s lack of humidity that causes the water deep within the skin to evaporate out faster than normal. (This is just like how clothes will dry faster on a dry day). Normally our skin prevents too much water loss out thanks to its remarkably waterproof outermost layer – the epidermis – and a thin film of water-resistant oils (sebum) that cover it.

For whatever reason, some of us are rather predisposed to getting dry, cracked hands in the winter. This can sometimes be due to an underlying dermatitis (or eczema) that is set off when the skin gets dry. Sometimes the soaps or cleaning products that we use can wash off the natural, protective oils.

A thick emollient (‘moisturising cream’) spread over the hands is a good way to stop the skin’s oils being rubbed away. Emollients also provide a greasy waterproof layer of their own. And even if the moisturising cream TV commercials suggest otherwise, there’s nothing you can place on the skin that will actually put more water inside. Even expensive moisturising creams only provide an oily coating to help further loss of water. A basic, plain ointment will probably work just as well (maybe even better).

Tips to preserve your skin’s natural oils include avoiding scrubbing your hands when washing and trying not to shower or bathe in very hot water. Likewise, avoiding extremes of heat and consider wearing gloves. Sometimes a warm air humidifier can also help.

For me, it’s all just one more reason to look forward to the summer.

Question from Tracy V via Facebook

Answer by Dr Stu

N.B. Guru is intended for educational and entertainment purposes, not as a source of healthcare advice. Any new or troublesome symptom should always been assessed by a qualified medical professional.

Image Source: Cold by The Old Adalie Plain, on Flickr

Article by Stuart Farrimond

January 30, 2014

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .

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