Is Handwashing Drying Your Child’s Skin?

A rash on their hands might mean that you have to change how your kids wash their hands and not that they have to wash less often.

Do your kids get dry, red, and itchy hands, especially during the winter months when it gets cold?

Hand sanitizier and handwashing may be drying your child's skin.

Believe it or not, it’s probably because they are washing their hands very frequently, which is a good thing these days.

Is Handwashing Drying Your Child’s Skin?

Of course, many other things could be causing a rash on your child’s hands, but if the rash is on both hands, is worse each winter, and there are no other symptoms, then it is probably from handwashing.

Is it from excessive handwashing?

Not necessarily.

“The best way to prevent the spread of infections and decrease the risk of getting sick is by washing your hands with plain soap and water, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is essential, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after coughing, sneezing, or blowing one’s nose. There is currently no evidence that consumer antiseptic wash products (also known as antibacterial soaps) are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients could do more harm than good in the long-term and more research is needed.”

Q&A for Consumers | Hand Sanitizers and COVID-19

You might just need to change up how your child washes their hands, making sure that they:

  • use a moisturizing soap (Dove, Basis) or soap-free cleanser (Cetaphil, Vanicream Free & Clear), avoiding harsher, antibacterial soaps
  • apply moisturizers (Aquaphor, Vanicream, Cetaphil, Cerave, Eucerin) within a few minutes of washing, keeping in mind that greasy ointments typically are the best, followed by creams, and then lotions, although kids sometimes don’t like the feel of greasy ointments
  • avoid the frequent use of hand sanitizers, as they contain high concentrations of alcohol and can be drying, so limit the use of hand sanitizers to when soap and water isn’t available and even then, try to use a hand sanitizer with a moisturizer

But what if your child’s hands do get red and irritated? Simply applying a moisturizer probably isn’t going to be much help then, is it?

Probably not, so that’s when it’s time to also apply a steroid cream to calm the flare up. While you can start with over-the-counter hydrocortizone cream twice a day (don’t apply at same time as the moisturizers), you might need a medium strength prescription steroid cream for all but the mildest cases. In some cases, a more potent steroid might even be needed for a short time.

And of course, you should think about what else might be causing a rash on your child’s hands, especially if they aren’t quickly getting better with steroids and moisturizers:

  • does your child also have ulcers in their mouth or a rash on their feet, which might indicate Hand Foot and Mouth disease?
  • has your child recently been bitten by a tick?
  • does your child have a honey colored crusty rash on one hand, a sign of impetigo?
  • is your child working with new chemicals, solvents, wearing gloves, or doing anything else that could be triggering an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis on their hands?
  • do other people in the house have an itchy rash on their hands and arms, which could be a sign of scabies?

Fortunately, hand dermatitis from excessive hand washing and cold winter weather is typically easy to diagnosis and treat and isn’t often confused with other pediatric conditions.

More on Hand Dermatitis

Author: Vincent Iannelli, MD

Vincent Iannelli, MD