Stay Safe during Coronavirus Epidemics and Protect Your Skin

Here, at What’s In My Jar you often hear us talk about overwashing. As our advisor dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki points out so well in her book and podcast, most people in the developed world disrupt the health of their skin by washing it too often and using cleansing products that are too harsh. In light of the ongoing coronavirus epidemics, I think it is important to emphasize: it is absolutely crucial for your health to keep your hands hygienic and clean. While there is no need to wash your face and body more than once per day, you definitely need to clean your hands way more frequently - as in every time you suspect that you might have touched a virus-contaminated surface like a handrail in a subway, banknote, or an airplane seat.

With cleaning your hands, you are minimizing the chances that harmful viruses (for example, flu and coronavirus) can transfer from the surfaces that your hands touch to your nose, mouth, and eyes, and subsequently, into deeper into your body. Even if you have encountered a virus, you can be perfectly safe if you remove the virus from your hands before they pass it on to your face, hair or clothes. The bottom line is: keep your hands as free from getting new germs as you possibly can when you are in public spaces. Don’t touch things you don’t need to touch and clean your hands if you couldn’t avoid a touch.

The advice to “wash your hands” might be misleading though. Literally “washing” your hands might be not the best thing you can do to keep them hygienic. Here is why.

Studies show that washing hands with soap and water in a way that most people do it (a drop of soap, a splash of water, 3-second swirl, rinse off) does not remove the viruses from your hands well enough. To remove bacteria and viruses from your hands, you need to wash your hands with soap and water for almost a full minute (and this is times longer than most people do it). The other issue with literally washing your hands is soap and water themselves. Traditional soaps (and these are used in public bathrooms and workplaces), combined with water, disrupt the skin’s natural barrier because they are too alkaline (while our skin surface pH is slightly acidic and this is required for a healthy skin barrier and microbiome). As the result, not only soap and water make your skin feel dry, tight and rough, they also weaken the skin’s ability to guard the body against viruses and bacteria entering your body. While coronavirus can’t get into your body via skin, some other ones have, so having dry skin poses additional risk to your health.

Luckily, there is a better way. Hand sanitizing liquids are, on one hand, more effective against bacteria and viruses, and, on the other hand, they are less harmful to your natural skin barrier compared to soap and water. Many people find them more convenient, too, as you can have a sanitizing tube on you at all times while commuting or traveling, and it takes just a few seconds to apply.

This said, hand sanitizers still disrupt your skin barrier. Most hand sanitizers contain alcohol that is drying to your skin. It is just less drying compared with soap and water. This is why you shouldn’t sanitize your hands more frequently than is needed for hygienic reasons. For example, you probably do not need to sanitize your hands frequently inside your own house. And you definitely need a hand moisturizer to support your skin barrier repair. It is not a bad idea to apply it every time after you have sanitized or washed your hands.

Of course, not all hand sanitizers are created equal. It is best to go for a fragrance-free option when selecting a hand sanitizer. Fragrances are irritating to our skin, especially when you put them on a skin that is already troubled by the sanitizing ingredients (e.g. ethanol). And let’s be honest, most fragranced sanitizers smell horrific to a degree it is rude to expose people near you to it:).

As for the sanitizing ingredients themselves, most hand sanitizers contain alcohol (ethanol), and it is indeed the most effective and practical chemical for the purpose. Your product needs to contain somewhere between 70% to 90% alcohol to be effective against germs. There are other sanitizing ingredients used as well (benzethonium chloride, quaternary ammonium). Hand sanitizers with these ingredients can be alcohol-free and potentially less drying for your skin. At the same time, as Dr. Sandy Skotnicki warns, some people might develop an allergy to them (which is way less common with alcohol), so sticking with the tried-and-tested alcohol (plus a lot of moisturizing) might be a better choice long term.

So all in all, to guard yourself from coronavirus and flu without sacrificing the skin health of your hands, use a fragrance-free hand sanitizing liquid frequently while commuting, traveling or being in a public space. Go for hand sanitizer instead of soap and water for better protection against gems and less harm to your skin barrier. Of course, if you do not have access to a sanitizer while in a public space, washing your hands with soap and water is still undoubtedly better than not cleaning them at all.

Use a moisturizer (fragrance-free is a plus here, too) any time the skin feels dry. And finally, give your hands a break when you are in a “safe space” of your own house avoiding washing and sanitizing them more than is needed for hygienic reasons.