Thursday, February 3, 2011

Prevent and Soothe Chapped Winter Hands

Dry, cracked hands are a common cold weather complaint. Here's how to get a grip on the problem.

By Shelley Levitt  WebMD

WebMD FeatureReviewed by Laura J. Martin, MDWinter is brutal on our hands. Smooth, supple, and soft in September, hands can turn red, chapped, and rough by February.

The main culprit? Lack of moisture.

Having a healthy outlook on life makes you feel better on the inside, and with a little help, those positive changes can also be reflected on the outside. When men and women hit their 40s and 50s, their skin changes. The outer later of skin stops turning over skin cells as quickly and uniformly as it did when they were younger, which leaves skin looking dry, blotchy, and dull. That process, combined with the cumulative effects of decades of sun exposure, makes wrinkles and skin cancer prime...

During the winter months, the humidity in the outside air plunges. Inside, things are even more arid, with indoor heating creating desert-like conditions in our home and office. What's more, follow the advice of health care experts to wash your hands frequently to avoid catching a cold or the flu and you'll sap whatever natural oils are left in your skin.

The effect -- hands so dehydrated they may crack, peel, bleed, and become painful -- can be alarming.

"People will have fissures in their hands and they'll come to see me saying they can't figure out what's happening," says New York City dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin. "It's just extremely dry skin."

The good news, Marmur says, "is once you recognize that, you're halfway on your way to fixing the problem."

Here's what you need to know to help your hands weather winter.

Hereditary Plays a Role

Just how well our hands can withstand winter's harsh conditions has a lot to do with the strength of our skin barrier, says Charles Crutchfield III, MD, a dermatology professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. A combination of proteins, lipids, and oils, the skin barrier is what protects our skin from assault, and just how good a job it does is largely genetically determined.

If you have a weak barrier, you're more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin, like itching, inflammation, and eczema. You're also more likely to experience excessively dry hands in winter.

The bottom line: If you suffered from chapped hands last year, you can count on that happening again this season and every winter.

Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize

To treat parched, scaly hands, you need to replace the moisture that your thirsty skin is missing. Drinking water, experts point out, won't do that.

"It's the moisturizer applied directly to the skin that will keep water from evaporating and give your skin a healthy, dewy appearance," says dermatologist Amy Wechsler, MD, author of The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Reverse Stress, Aging and Reveal More Youthful, Beautiful Skin.

For effective treatment, apply moisturizer early and often. "The best prevention is to begin using a moisturizer before your hands show signs of dryness," Marmur says.

Putting moisturizer on just once a day is inadequate. "That's probably enough protection for about five minutes," Marmur says.

With more frequent application, however, the effects of a moisturizer last longer. Five or six applications a day, Marmur says, will provide round-the-clock protection.

To reach that goal, Marmur suggests practicing what she calls "good product placement." Along with keeping a big jar or tube of your favorite over-the-counter moisturizer in your bathroom, stow smaller sizes in your purse, gym bag and on your desk so application becomes a habit.

And remember to rub the hand cream or lotion over your cuticles and nails. "Nails can become dry, just like the skin of the hands," Crutchfield says.

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