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Hygienic hands and healthy skin – protecting your skin whilst keeping it clean

5 min read

It’s been over a year and a half now since Covid swept the planet and significantly changed the way we live and work. Social distancing, lockdowns, working from home – all of these things have almost become second nature to us now – and washing or sanitising our hands at every given opportunity. But the ways in which we keep our hands clean – usually either soap and water, or hand sanitisers – can differ in terms of efficacy when it comes to dealing with the virus, as well as how they impact the health of our skin.

In a recent survey we discovered that 64% of parents were more concerned than ever about their children’s hygiene, and that 54% stated that the skin health of their children’s hands had been adversely affected as a result of increased hand washing or sanitisation. So, in this article, we’re going to take a look at just how increased levels of hand washing and sanitisation can affect skin health, and what we can do to help offset those impacts.

“Because the virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies – or rather, we should say it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive.”

Pall Thordarson, professor of chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney

The differences between handwashing and sanitisation

Hand washing has always been a part of our daily routine, but hand sanitisation is now a much more prevalent practice too.

Using soap is the most effective way of neutralising the virus. The mechanical friction from scrubbing produces a lather that covers a large surface area and gets into every part of your skin. What’s more, as Palli Thordarson, chemistry professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, explains, "the virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies."

Another advantage of handwashing over using sanitisers against Covid is suggested by this Japanese study, which showed that to kill the influenza A virus, alcohol-based sanitizers needed four minutes of contact with virus particles to dry them out and neutralise them, whilst washing with water alone inactivated the virus within 30 seconds. At the moment there isn’t enough research to prove the same is true with Covid, but it’s broadly believed to be reasonable to assume a similar difference in efficacy of the two methods.

Which isn’t to say that handwashing doesn’t have its downsides too. Scrubbing the skin too hard or for too long can weaken its top layer and leave it cracked, which can in turn compromise the skin's first line of defence against bacteria.

Sanitisers meanwhile do perform a vital role in the battle to keep hands hygienic. It’s not always possible to get to soap and a sink – especially when out and about in public – and on occasions such as these sanitisers provide a vital next best alternative. But they do come with their own challenges to good skin health. For example, the alcohol in sanitisers can be particularly drying, particularly for those prone to skin conditions such as eczema.

Paula Bourelly, MD, a dermatologist at Olney Dermatology explains that with the CDC recommending “hand sanitizers with 60% alcohol or higher used nearly every time you have to encounter a high-touch surface in public, people are bound to have dry skin, evolving to eczema even in folks not traditionally suffering from eczema.”

Common hand skin problems affected by hand hygiene practices

“Certain hand hygiene practices can increase the risk of skin irritation and should be avoided. For example, washing hands regularly with soap and water immediately before or after using an alcohol-based product is not only unnecessary, but may lead to dermatitis.”

WHO Guidelines on Hand Hygiene in Health Care

The scrubbing from handwashing with soap and water and the drying effects of alcohol-based sanitisers can all degrade the skin’s naturally produced layer of protective fats and oil, leaving the skin unprotected.

This can be particularly difficult for people that suffer from eczema. This well-known skin condition is most commonly seen as a problem in children, but it can also affect people of all ages. The skin of those that suffer from eczema tends not to produce as much fats and oils as healthy skin, which makes it harder to retain the moisture needed to form the skin barrier that helps protect against dry, irritated, cracked skin.

And of course this new climate of increased hand hygiene means a rising number of cases of eczema flaring up again in those that have ‘grown out’ of childhood eczema.

There are a number of different types of eczema. Some, like Atopic dermatitis, can have a genetic component, whilst problems with the immune system can also play a contributory role. But, what these types of systemic eczema have in common with other types such as contact dermatitis or hand eczema, is that they can all be made considerably worse by triggers in the environment. All sorts of things can set it off, including detergents, jewelry, skin care products (including makeup), soaps and perfumes and many more.

Protecting your hands whilst keeping them clean
But the fact remains that, especially during the current pandemic, it’s very important that we maintain good hand hygiene. It’s fortunate then that there are things you can do to keep your hands clean whilst also protecting them from cracking or breaking out into patches of eczema.

  • Soap and water is always best – wherever possible, do try to use soap and water: it doesn't dry the skin as much as sanitiser.
  • Always keep some moisturiser with you – sanitisers are particularly bad for drying out the skin, but even frequent washing with soap and water can be detrimental over time. Moisturiser can help put things back to rights. Moisturising ointments are the most effective, whilst creams are better than lotions.
  • Remember the 4-minute rule with sanitiser – if you are using sanitiser, be sure to allow 4 minutes before moisturising, as it’s the drying out process that helps neutralise contagion.
  • Choose a gentler sanitiser – there are hand sanitisers on the market that do contain skin protective ingredients such as essential oils or aloe vera which can help reduce the negative impacts of the alcohol to the skin.
  • Look out for the SHA accreditation mark – the Skin Health Alliance’s dermatological accreditation logo means that products have met our own thorough set of skin safety requirements, as set out by our team of leading independent dermatologists and skin scientists – and not set by the manufacturer or brand. Safeguard’s anti-bacterial and antifungal soap is just one of many examples of an SHA approved product.

What it all boils down to is understanding how being more conscientious about keeping your hands clean and hygienic will naturally impact your skin’s own natural defences, and taking the right measures to support rebuilding those defences as required. And just remember that it is entirely possible to practice good hygiene without having to compromise the good health of your skin.

If you’d like to know how we can help you communicate how your products can help protect people’s skin, please get in touch by emailing