Dry, cracked hands and feet are a common complaint of patients in my practice. Though the problem may be worse in the winter due to very dry air, strong winds and a lot of extra hand washing, the hands and feet are prone to dry skin throughout the year due to many factors. Our hands are the workhorses of the body. They are needed for typing, texting, hand shaking, writing, office work, taking care of children and so many other activities that require their use. And since hand washing (although needed for good hygiene and to remove germs) leads to a reduction of the natural oils and protective layer of the skin, it’s no wonder that dry, irritated hands are a common problem.
In the winter, feet can get thick calluses due to lack of exfoliation while inside shoes all day, but in the summer are subject to sand, chlorine and other irritants. Excessively dry skin on the hands and feet can lead to itchy, red and irritated skin and in the worst case, deep cracks called fissures will develop. These fissures are worrisome since they are an entry point for bacteria that can lead to a serious infection. Particularly dangerous for diabetics, a foot infection can lead to serious complications, which is why it’s so important to prevent cracks from developing in the skin. Even though skin dryness and irritation is common, there are several simple steps that can be followed to keep the hands and feet supple, soft and healthy.
To avoid being exposed to germs, many people increase the frequency of hand washing or the use of hand sanitizers during the winter; and the skin pays the price. Hands often get very dry, chapped and irritated from these products. For some people, they can even develop painful cracks that bleed because their skin is so inflamed. To reduce the risk of this hand dermatitis, use only mild cleansers when washing (antibacterial soap is not necessary to remove germs) and avoid hand sanitizers (especially those with alcohol) whenever possible. After washing, apply a healing ointment. At night, use the healing ointment under cotton gloves to allow deep penetration of hydration. Within one or two days of this morning and night regimen, the skin on the hands should be hydrated and smooth. Since I’m a physician and wash my hands between each patient, my hands get very dry too. But this combination of moisturizing after washing during the day and applying a healing ointment at night keeps them well moisturized.
After being trapped in shoes and boots all winter, feet can become quite callused, especially on the heels. Just like the hands, heels can become so thickened and inflamed that painful cracks called fissures can form. Prevent these by using a healing ointment on the heels every morning. At night, do the same routine you did with your hands, by applying a healing ointment on your feet before you put them in socks. After a week or so, the thick skin will be soft and easily removed with a pumice stone or other over-the-counter exfoliation tool. Once the heels are soft, use the healing ointment every other day to keep them looking and feeling their best. Now when sandal season comes around again, you’ll be prepared!