A person washes their hands with hot water and soap.
Hand-washing without moisturizing can cause dryness and cracking. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Human hands have been on the front lines of this coronavirus battle from Day 1.

Long before masks became the mantra, health officials pinpointed hand-washing as the leading course of action to stem the spread of the virus.

It’s little wonder that many of those hands are now beginning to show a toll in this battle.

Prolonged and repeated exposure to water, soap, sanitizer and cleaning agents have caused serious skin problems. Dry, chapped, red and cracking skin are becoming common complaints.

Jackie Eastman, MD, a physician at Spectrum Health Allergy and Immunology, said frequent hand-washing can cause skin dryness and contact dermatitis, which arises in two forms: irritant and allergic.

Irritant dermatitis emerges from a non-immune response in the body, with the skin growing irritated, red and rashy as a result of simple exposure to a substance. Contact dermatitis occurs when the body’s immune system responds to foreign substances—and it can be more difficult to treat.

Hand-washing is more likely to trigger irritant dermatitis.

Health care workers are especially at high risk of developing skin problems as a result of frequent hand-washing. They’re also exposed to more germs than most, and there’s evidence that dry, cracked skin can make it easier for bacteria and other microbes to get inside your body, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The good news? These skin conditions are entirely treatable and even avoidable with proper care, according to a recent study in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science.

The trouble is, many people may underestimate the need for moisturizers.

Dr. Eastman recommends starting first with a heavy, over-the-counter moisturizer such as Aquaphor, Eucerin or Vaseline.

“This can be applied regularly throughout the day,” Dr. Eastman said.

She recommends applying the moisturizer before bed and then donning a pair of gloves to seal in the moisture overnight.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using a pea-sized amount of hand cream or ointment, preferably a fragrance-free or dye-free product containing mineral oil or petrolatum.

“If that isn’t working, then they should see their provider and get a prescription,” Dr. Eastman said. “Sometimes topical steroids will help.”

The products should be applied immediately after washing hands and after using a hand sanitizer.

A word of caution: Don’t plan to use skin irritation as a reason to avoid hand-washing. It remains an essential step in slowing the spread of disease.

“In the current global context, the potential occurrence of these dermatological adverse events should in no way cause people to deviate from strict hand hygiene rules,” the study said.