If you wash your hands a lot or work in an environment where your hands are often wet or damp, you may find your eczema flares up frequently. This can be frustrating and uncomfortable.
Understanding what’s going on can help you decide how to manage hand eczema, — including atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis — that’s worsened by wet or damp conditions. Here’s what you need to know so you can make the best choices for your workplace and your skin.
Unbeknownst to many people, “dishwasher hands” or “dishpan hands” are a type of eczema on your hands. When regularly exposed to water, your skin’s protective barriers slowly break down. This is irritating and causes symptoms of eczema. Exposing your damp hands to soaps, detergents, or other chemical irritants can speed up and worsen that breakdown. If possible, avoid having your hands in water for extended periods of time and avoid repeated cycles of wetting and drying your skin.
Hand eczema in general affects about 10 percent of adults in the United States. Among people who handle food or work in kitchens, 55 percent of the skin problems they face come from being exposed to water, detergent, or soap they encounter at work. Researchers don’t know the exact percentage of people who deal with dishwasher hands, but these statistics make it clear the condition is relatively common.
Most of the time, people who experience dishpan hands will have similar symptoms to eczema found elsewhere on the body. This includes dry, flaky, or even cracked skin, with itching, peeling, discoloration, and pain. Symptoms may come on slowly, or they may appear suddenly. They can affect all of the hand or only certain areas.
Several members of MyEczemaTeam have experienced hand eczema as a result of repeated exposure to water and other chemicals. One said, “I’m a massage therapist. My flare-ups are constant due to my hand-washing. It’s so frustrating.”
Someone else added, “I need to find a cream I can take to work that will help in between all of my hand-washing.”
Hand-washing for health and safety reasons can also trigger eczema, like it did for one member who explained, “My hand is starting to itch today because I have been washing my hands due to the coronavirus outbreak in my town.”
Over time, this can cause more serious hand problems, like it did for one member who explained, “My hands are very bad. I can't open them fully due to cracks from all this washing my hands because of COVID-19.”
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, you are not alone. You can do a few things to avoid or manage eczema caused by exposure to water or chemicals.
You can help manage or prevent the symptoms of dishwasher hands, especially if you know that water or soaps trigger your eczema.
If you can, avoid exposing your hands to water, soap, and detergent as much as possible. Do your best to keep your hands clean after you wash them so you don’t have to wash them again. This can be difficult, especially if your job requires you to have wet hands regularly or you’re washing to avoid viruses like the flu or COVID-19.
Find a moisturizer that works for you, then apply it directly after your hands get wet or exposed to soap or detergent. Most moisturizer manufacturers make small tubes of their products, so you can tuck one in a pocket and carry it with you.
Applying moisturizer after each wash can offset many of the negative effects of water and soap on your skin.
Some moisturizers, also called emollients, may not be so easy to wash off. These can provide a protective barrier over your skin, so you can clean up without suffering skin damage.
Different products work for different people. One MyEczemaTeam member asked, “Does coconut oil form a barrier and stay on after washing your hands?”
Someone answered, “It does for a while. I usually use it after the shower and before bed. It does soak into your skin.”
Another person added, “I have been using Aveeno lotion for the last month as a test to see how long the cream protects without washing off. I have been able to wash my hands with a gentle soap (Jergens) several times before reapplying additional Aveeno. I have had no breakouts.”
There’s no guarantee that any specific product will work for you, but it’s worth it to try and find something that will protect your hands while you wash them and remoisturize them after.
If you’re choosing a soap or cleanser for hand-washing, find one designed for people with sensitive skin. It should be free of fragrance, dyes, and other allergens, as well as harsh products like alkalines. If you aren’t sure what ingredients to look for or avoid, talk to your dermatologist to get a list. You can also search the National Eczema Association’s Eczema Product Directory for soaps and moisturizers that are safe for most people with eczema. You should also avoid antibacterial soaps, as some ingredients that kill bacteria can also trigger eczema.
Some people think wearing waterproof gloves when submerging their hands may protect them from eczema flares. However, these can actually cause your hands to sweat, which then traps moisture between your skin and the glove. Don’t wear gloves for longer than 20 minutes at the most without letting your hands dry off. You may need to moisturize between glove sessions, too. Dermatologists may recommend wearing soft, white cotton gloves inside rubber gloves.
If you can’t avoid wet hands or exposing your hands to soaps or other chemicals and you’re using your usual moisturizers without seeing any improvement, call your dermatologist. There is help for dishpan hands.
Your dermatology team has a number of options when it comes to how to treat your eczema. Most of these are topical, so you’ll rub them on your hands according to the instructions your doctor gives you. If topical solutions don’t help, your health care provider should be able to prescribe something that will. Don’t give up until your eczema is managed, and your quality of life and sense of well being are high again.
MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema, and their loved ones. On MyEczemaTeam, more than 49,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.
Are you dealing with dishwasher hands due to water, soap, or detergent exposure? What has helped you? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.