What makes skin irritated?
Symptoms caused by an irritant usually appear within 48 hours, or even immediately. Milder irritants (such as soap and detergents) may not cause problems immediately – you may need frequent exposure to these before they cause problems. Particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic with people washing their hands with soap or sanitiser much more, hands are more regularly exposed to irritants.
Reactions can affect any part of the body but most commonly the hands and face.
Long-lasting symptoms can be painful, causing the affected areas of the skin to itch and burn. This can negatively impact upon one’s quality of life.
Treatment for dry and chapped hands
If you can totally avoid contact with the substance which is irritating your hands i.e. wearing protective gloves, you should do so. In some cases, and certainly in the current climate of coronavirus, the avoidance of soap and water is not possible.
Some simple changes may help, such as:
- Wearing disposable gloves if you are badly affected (and if you can get them)
- Replacing liquid soap and water with an alcohol-based hand rub, could help, or could be another irritant, so test carefully
- Using an emollient when washing your hands, instead of soap
- Avoid products with added fragrance
- Using an emollient (soap substitute and moisturising cream)
- Dry hands extremely well with a clean towel after washing
- Wear gloves to avoid touching surfaces
- Cream moisturisers can have a cooling effect on hands. Apply this at least twice daily
- Do not use communal tubs of hand cream to avoid the risk of infections
- Before going to bed, apply a thick moisturiser to hands and then cover with cotton gloves to increase absorption (and prevent it going all over your sheets!)
Some people experience more severe symptoms than just dry and chapped hands and develop contact dermatitis. This may need more intense treatment and pharmacy advice.
What is contact dermatitis?
Hand dermatitis (also known as hand eczema) is a common condition affecting up to 10% of the population. Some occupations including working in health care make us more vulnerable to dermatitis. We are all now washing our hands far more often that we were used to. This is a good thing, but will take its toll on our skin, unless we care for our hands too.
Contact dermatitis causes the skin to become itchy, inflamed, blistered, dry and cracked. Lighter skin can become red, and darker skin can become dark brown, purple or grey.
Good hand care and simple precautions can reduce your risk of developing hand dermatitis. If you do develop this condition these simple precautions will for most improve the condition of your hands.
What your pharmacist may advise?
If you are experiencing the symptoms of contact dermatitis, your pharmacist should be able to help and may advise the following creams:
Emollients are thick moisturising treatments applied directly to the skin to reduce water loss and cover it with a protective film. They are also used to help manage dry or scaly skin conditions such as eczema.
Choice of emollient
There are loads of different emollients to choose from. You may need to try a few to find one that works best for you. You may also be advised to use a mix of emollients, such as:
- an ointment for very dry skin
- a cream or lotion for less-dry skin
- an emollient to use instead of soap
- an emollient to use on your face and hands, and a different one to use on your body
The difference between lotions, creams and ointments is the amount of oil they contain. Ointments contain the most oil so can be quite greasy, but they are the most effective at keeping moisture in the skin. Lotions contain the least amount of oil so are not greasy but can be less effective. Creams are somewhere in between.
Creams and lotions tend to be more suitable for inflamed (swollen) areas of skin. Ointments are more suitable for areas of dry skin that are not inflamed.
If you’ve been using a particular emollient for some time, it may eventually become less effective or may start to irritate your skin. If this is the case, your pharmacist can recommend another product.
How to use emollients
Use your emollient frequently and in large amounts.
To apply the emollient:
- use a large amount
- do not rub it in – smooth it into the skin in the same direction the hair grows
- for very dry skin, apply the emollient 2 to 4 times a day, or as prescribed by a doctor
- after a bath or shower, gently dry the skin and then immediately apply the emollient while the skin is still moist
Apply the emollients regularly.
Do not share emollients with other people.
Occasionally, some emollients can irritate the skin. If you have contact dermatitis, your skin will be sensitive and can sometimes react to certain ingredients, such as perfume in over-the-counter emollients.
If your skin reacts to the emollient, stop using it and speak to your pharmacist, who may be able to recommend an alternative product.
Dangers of emollients
Be aware that some emollients contain paraffin and can be a fire hazard, so should not be used near a naked flame. Emollients added to bath water can make your bath very slippery, so take care getting in and out of the bath. – link to first aid for a fall
If emollients are not helping, your pharmacist or GP may advise the use of topical steroid creams.
More information on contact dermatitis can be found on the NHS website
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First Aid for life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made, or actions taken based on this information.