There are two main reasons why people get a rash on their hands after washing. The first one, and the more rare one, is allergy. If your skin gets red, itchy, or a rash appears after using soap and water, you might be allergic to some of the ingredients in the hand wash. If you are allergic to an ingredient, you will always get a reaction from a contact with it, even if the concentration is very low.
The second, and more widespread reason for getting a hand rash from washing is irritation. Unlike allergy, irritation is not always connected to one ingredient. A combination of different factors usually triggers an irritation. A major factor in developing an irritation is weak skin barrier. The same ingredients that make hand washing work against bacteria and viruses - so called surfactants, or detergents (including soap) - interfere with lipids in the skin's natural protective top layer, weakening the skin's defenses against potential irritants. Because of the weakened barrier, the skin is more likely to develop a reaction to fragrances, plant extracts, preservatives, and other ingredients in hand washes and hand creams. It is possible that, at one time, the skin reacts with a violent irritation, for example, to a hand soap fragrance. Once the skin barrier heals though, the same person can tolerate the same fragrance without a problem.
The trouble is that for the most part, skin allergy and irritation can look and feel the same. What do you need to do in practice if you have a rash from hand washing, and are not sure whether it is an irritation or allergy?
If the reaction is severe, it is best to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. She should be able to help you determine the exact reason for the reaction, and test if it is allergic. In the meantime, there are steps you can take yourself to calm your skin down.
First, take a look at all the products that come in contact with your hands. This, of course, includes the hand wash, and also hand creams, sanitizers, wipes, dishwashing liquid and other cleaning products. The idea is: you need to stop using all these products and this way you will remove the culprit that have caused the trouble (be it an allergy or irritation). Then, you strip your hand care routine down to the absolute essentials: a hand wash, sanitizer, and a cream. Each of these products should contain the minimal number of ingredients. These products should also not contain known common irritants and allergens. After sticking to these minimal product set for a couple of days, the symptoms will improve and disappear completely. This approach is called a Product Elimination Diet , developed by a Canadian dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, a world's leading expert in allergic and irritant skin reactions.
For your essentials' set, it is important that the handwash you select is not soap, neither in a bar or liquid form. Soaps are harsh on the skin, and disrupt its natural barrier. It does not matter how natural the soap is. It can be difficult sometimes to recognize soaps from the ingredient list. This is because manufacturers often list the materials used in the chemical reaction that produces soap. These materials look harmless, like, for example, coconut or olive oil. After the chemical reaction called "saponiphication" though, these oils turn into harsh, stripping detergents. Look for products with a "soap-free" label or at least ones that do not call themselves a "soap".
Below is the list of ingredients that your minimal product set should avoid. You can also use the WIMJ engine: check the "potential irritants" tab, and look for products that do not contain irritants marked with a "red flame" sign. (The only exception here is alcohol in hand sanitizers - most products must include it to get the job done). You can also add the ingredients below to your personal "Avoid list", and the WIMJ search will exclude products that contain them.
Main ingredients to avoid:
Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.
Essential oils and natural fragrances.
Plant extracts (with an exception of colloidal oatmeal extract).
You will notice that the products that meet the criteria are quite boring. They do not smell, or even have a slight unpleasant smell like, for example, tried and tested plain vaseline (petrolatum) based ointments. They also often come in a plain, "medicine-like" packaging.
Whenever possible, when washing your hands, use your own hand wash. When in public places, use your hand sanitizer instead of washing the hands with the soap provided. Use the hand cream from your essentials set after each hand washing and sanitizing.
Your hand rash should start healing after a couple of days with this routine, and should disappear in a week or two. If you do not notice any improvements, or if the symptoms become worse, consult a dermatologist as soon as you can.
Photo by Diego PH