Handwashing is more crucial than ever these days. We’re all lathering up a bit more mindfully (and for a full 20 seconds). That’s a good thing. But if you have hand eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, your skin has probably been more dry, scaly, cracked and itchy than usual.
I’m speaking from experience: My dyshidrotic eczema has gone a bit haywire these past few months thanks to all my dutiful scrubbing at the sink. My prescription ointment does a great job of healing my skin overnight (under very chic cotton gloves, I might add), but it’s a topical steroid that I’m only supposed to use twice a day. Plus, it’s super greasy, which isn’t great if I’m going to eat, use a computer, text or basically touch anything at all. So mid-day, after a shower and a few rounds of handwashing, I’m back at square one.
That’s where over-the-counter (OTC) products come in to hold me over between prescription applications. We spoke to two dermatologists to get their recommendations and tips for dealing with this annoying and often painful condition.
How to Protect Your Hands
If you have any type of eczema or dermatitis, odds are you’ve learned that water is your arch nemesis. Showering can make your hands sting thanks to shampoo and body wash, and once you're toweled off they get cracked and dry fast. Unfortunately, coming in contact with water is unavoidable.
Dr. Susan Nedorost, MD, professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University and director of the dermatitis program at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center says, “[The] best treatment is to avoid wet to dry cycles, which are worse in the winter when indoor air is dry. That causes hands to dry faster and the skin to crack.” She suggests wearing cotton gloves under occlusive ones for wet work. For instance, to wash dishes, wear protective cotton gloves to protect your skin underneath waterproof ones that will keep them dry.
Make moisturizing right after showering (or washing your hands) a habit too. This locks in moisture. “[A] dime-size amount of moisturizer, cream or even a small amount of Vaseline on moist skin can be beneficial after washing,” says Dr. Glenn Kolansky, MD, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon with a private practice in New Jersey.
When to See a Dermatologist
Prescription treatments and topical steroids can thin the skin with long-term use, but sometimes they’re really the best (or only) option. And asking a professional is the only real way to figure out if that’s the case. You may not know what type of eczema you have in the first place or its source.
For instance, dyshidrotic eczema is a more severe type. “Eczema often appears with dry, scaly, pink to red areas that are often itchy,” says Kolansky. “Dyshidrotic eczema is often extremely itchy. It has tiny tapioca-like vesicles that may secrete tiny amounts of fluid. Usually a strong prescription steroid is required.” So, if your hands are oozing or feel excessively dry, painful or so itchy that it’s “biting,” as Kolansky says, it’s time to look beyond OTC products.
There’s also a chance your hand eczema is triggered by an unknown allergy. “Allergic contact dermatitis can occur along with any other diagnosis and can be cured by avoiding allergens identified with patch testing,” says Nedorost. “Anyone with severe hand eczema should consult a physician about patch testing to all of the ingredients [in] products they touch at work and at home, including components of gloves and topical medicines.”
Bottom line: If your hand dermatitis is interfering with work, sleep or concentration, make an appointment with your dermatologist. And know that prescriptions and OTC products work differently from case to case, so you may have to try a few to find one you like. Here are some solid OTC products that just might hold you over between prescription applications or until you get to the dermatologist. (You can also check out all of the National Eczema Association’s recommended products here.)
1. CeraVe Moisturizing Cream
“CeraVe and Cetaphil creams are reasonable choices that are pH balanced,” says Nedorost. It’s rich with hyaluronic acid, which helps the skin retain moisture, plus gentle and non-greasy. The goal of this cream is to restore the skin’s protective barrier, which it does by steadily releasing three ceramides (aka lipids that protect the skin and keep it moist) throughout the day. It’s also fragrance-free, which you should always look for when shopping for OTC eczema products.
2. Cetaphil Restoraderm Eczema Soothing Moisturizer
Ditch the itch with this non-irritating moisturizer. It’s clinically proven to be non-drying for those with atopic dermatitis. Colloidal oatmeal—a common ingredient in OTC eczema products—calms the skin while vitamins and moisturizers hydrate. If you find yourself gritting your teeth in the shower every time body wash hits your hands, consider trying Cetaphil’s National Eczema Association-approved PRO Gentle Body Wash.
3. Vanicream Moisturizing Ointment
Kolansky prefers greasy ointments for moisturizing the skin and creating a protective barrier. This one can alleviate symptoms of eczema, psoriasis, ichthyosis and general dry skin. It’s not just for your hands, either. It can also soothe cracked feet and lips. Bonus: It’s safe for kids too. “[Apply] to hydrated skin after soaking or simply washing,” he advises.
4. Eucerin Advanced Repair Cream
Kolansky recommends Eucerin products for everyday application. “Multiple [Eucerin products] are very creamy," he says, making them good for daytime use. It’s specialized for very dry skin and free of fragrances, dyes and parabens (those are chemical preservatives found in beauty and skin products that can irritate or stress some people’s skin), making it gentle enough for sensitive skin.
5. Aveeno Eczema Therapy Hand and Face Cream
This formula specifically targets the four main symptoms of eczema: itch, redness, dryness and irritation. Colloidal oatmeal comes to the rescue again to lock in moisture and restore the skin’s normal pH, along with a ceramide that holds skin cells together to strengthen the skin’s barrier. The National Eczema Association recommends it for adults.
6. CeraVe Healing Ointment
If you find that moisturizers’ hydrating effect is typically fleeting, ointment may be a better move for you, especially if you often have open cracks or cuts that sting when you apply certain lotions. Ointment is more of a protective barrier, rather than something that your skin immediately absorbs. This balm has ceramides and hyaluronic acid for hydration plus a long-lasting base of petrolatum. “If the skin is very dry, apply a copious amount of ointment and cover with a vinyl glove overnight,” says Kolansky.
7. Eczema Honey
I’m personally in love with this one. I so was blown away by the staggering number of positive reviews and unbelievable before-and-after photos that I had to give this a try. It does a way better job hydrating my hands than some other watery moisturizers I’ve tried. In fact, many of the reviews I read were from people who’d tried *everything* under the sun with no luck including prescriptions—until trying this. It’s a little sticky because hello, it’s made with beeswax and pure honey. So, I wear cotton gloves after applying it to keep it from getting on everything I touch. There’s also a hand soap that I’m eager to try because regular hand soap stings if I have any open cuts. And did I mention they also make hand sanitizer?
8. Vaseline Deep Moisture Jelly Cream
There’s a reason Kolansky is team ointment. While he says a small dose of regular Vaseline can help keep your hands smooth after washing, this alternative Vaseline product has the same white petrolatum base plus lots of healing moisturizers. In fact, this product claims to boost your skin’s healing moisture by 250 percent. And it has the National Eczema Association’s seal of approval to boot.
9. Vanicream Cleansing Bar
Every Vanicream product is fragrance-, formaldehyde-, lanolin- and paraben-free, making them safe to try on sensitive, irritated skin. Use this bar in place of regular hand soap, which can be full of chemical irritants. It creates a rich, creamy lather, which Kolansky says often signals a gentler overall soap. So gentle, in fact, that the National Eczema Association says it’s safe for kids. “I would look for hand soaps that are creamy, not antibacterial or clear,” Kolansky says. “[Avoid] antibacterial soaps such as Dial, which can be drying.” If the cleansing bar works for you, try swapping your body wash next.
10. Dove DermaSeries Dry Skin Relief Hand Cream
Dove’s DermaSeries products are paraben- and fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and made for eczema, psoriasis and very dry skin. Dove also makes gentle soap and body wash. “Frequent hand washing can be performed with mild hydrating soaps such as Dove,” says Kolansky. “All Dove soaps are generally mild. Look for ones that are for sensitive skin and fragrance-free.” If you have eczema somewhere besides your hands, try the DermaSeries Eczema Relief Body Lotion instead.
11. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm AP+ Moisturizer
A unique prebiotic formula complete with essential lipids and shea butter aims to provide 48-hour hydration for those with very dry skin. The National Eczema Association also says it's gentle enough for kids and babies. Kolansky recommends using a small amount during the day and a copious amount at night.