Like your face, your hands function as bridges to the world. You shake hands when you meet or greet someone for the first time and when you seal a deal.
Your hands express your affection to those you love. They soothe sad children and those suffering from illness. Maybe you "talk" with yours. In any case, whenever you're interacting with others, your hands will probably spend some time in the spotlight.
The problem is that your hands are also essential tools. You use them for complex maneuvers and lowly chores.
And everyone is always telling you the importance of washing your hands. In the course of a day, your hands are exposed to all sorts of germs, dirt, harsh substances, sunlight and more. To make matters worse, the frequent washing that's designed to keep your hands sanitary also can keep them dry, cracked and wrinkled.
If neglected, your hands' skin may end up needing medical help. That said, your fingernails (and your spirits) might benefit from a professional manicure now and then.
Taking good care of your hands doesn't have to be a major production. There are things you can do every day to help your hands look and feel good. Develop a good routine and give your hands a helping hand.
You've heard it a million times: Washing your hands is the best thing you can do to keep from spreading bacteria, viruses and other nasty things to yourself, and from yourself to others.
Wash your hands frequently. If you make it a practice to wash your hands the right way, their look and feel shouldn't be a casualty of your healthy habits.
A little knowledge about skin can help you understand how to wash your hands properly. Skin is composed of layers. The outer layer (the stratum corneum) is mostly made of dead skin cells surrounded by natural oils produced by the living cells in the layer beneath. The natural oils make a protective shield that keeps water inside the body and germs and other irritants out. If the outer layer doesn't have enough natural oils, it won't retain enough water -- and your skin may be dry, rough, red, cracked and itchy.
When you want to get all the oil or grease off dirty dishes, you use very hot water with a strong soap that will leave them squeaky clean. That's exactly what you don't want to do with your hands. You want to remove germs and grime, but you don't want to strip all the natural oils from your hands. Wash with warm water instead.
You should also avoid harsh soaps. Dermatologists recommend nondrying soaps like Dove, Neutrogena, Basis, Purpose and Oil of Olay. Liquid nonsoap cleansers like Cetaphil also work well. Antibacterial soaps aren't necessary and may even dry skin more. They also can kill good bacteria on the hands and encourage bad bacteria that resist antibiotics.
Rinse hands well and dry by patting or blotting gently. Don't rub.
Keep reading to learn all about moisturizers.
Good moisturizers can help prevent or treat dry skin on your hands. They hold that needed water in the outer layer of skin, making your hands smoother and softer. They also help your outer skin act as a temporary protective shield.
Many people like to use some sort of water-based lotion, but that may not be the best choice. Lotions may make your hands feel great at first, but the water will evaporate quickly, drying your skin anew.
Creams are thicker and longer-lasting than lotions. Most creams are water-based, but folks with extremely dry skin may want to use an oil-based cream. Oil will hold water inside your skin longer, but the cream will leave a residue on your hands.
When choosing a moisturizer for daily use, make sure you read the ingredients:
Humectants such as glycerin, alpha hydroxy acids and urea actually draw moisture from the air around you into your skin. They don't work if the air is dry.
Emollients get into the spaces between the cells on the outer layer of skin. They replace oils that have been washed away to make the skin smoother. Emollients may be primarily water- or oil-based.
Most products will include a preservative -- often, several -- to keep bacteria from damaging them after you open the container. If your skin is sensitive, some preservatives may irritate it. Trial and error may help you learn which ones work for you.
Fragrances also may cause irritation or contact allergy. Avoid them or find ones that you can tolerate.
Washing carefully and moisturizing should be important parts of your daily hand-care routine -- but they're not everything.
3. Treat Hands with Kid (or Other) Gloves
Your hands have a hard enough time as it is. Give them a break by protecting them from unnecessary exposure to anything that will make things worse.
All you have to do is make wearing gloves part of your daily routine. Until you get into the habit, taking a couple of minutes to put on gloves before various activities might seem bothersome. You might find wearing them uncomfortable at first, but it's worth the time.
Wear gloves anytime you plan to use harsh cleaning products. There's no use being careful about the soap you use to wash your hands if you're also exposing your hands to household cleaners. Keep a couple of pairs of elbow-length rubber gloves around for heavy cleaning. Use an inexpensive pair of cotton gloves as a liner to prevent sweating and itching.
You can find inexpensive white, cotton gloves at most drugstores. You can also use them to cover your hands after you've moisturized them at night or after applying medication for absorption.
Keep disposable gloves like those used by medical professionals and food-service workers around the house also. If preparing onions, tomatoes or other strong or acid foods irritates your hands, the gloves can help.
Wear gloves when gardening or doing yard work to protect hands and nails.
In cold weather, wear gloves when you go outside. It's not just to keep your hands from feeling cold. The gloves will also keep them from drying or chapping in the wintry air.
Year-round, whenever you'll be out in the sun, protect your hands with the invisible shield of sunscreen. The backs of hands, especially, need protection with a sunscreen of at least SPF 15 every day. A moisturizer that includes a sunblock of SPF 15 will also work.
2. Give Yourself a Mini-cure
A manicure may be a mood-elevating treat or preparation for a special occasion. Most of us won't get a manicure every day, but we can give ourselves a mini-cure, or the little things that help keep nails healthy and attractive. For example:
Don't bite your fingernails.
Use moisturizer on your nails as well as on your skin. For an extra treat at night, warm a favorite essential oil and give your nails a therapeutic soak.
Don't cut cuticles, push them back too far or use chemicals on them.
When cuticles are soft and moist, push them back gently with a soft cloth.
Buff nails with a soft cloth.
If nails become discolored, stop using polish for a while.
The acetone in nail polish remover can damage nails, so use it sparingly.
Keep your nails clean.
Prepare your nails and cuticles for grooming by cutting a lemon in half, sticking your fingernails inside and twisting them around to clean them.
Use a file with a fine texture to shape nails and remove snags.
File nails to a rounded point to preserve their strength.
Need more ideas to help your hands every day? Read on.
1. Take Care of Your Whole Self
Many of the tips medical professionals offer for skin care amount to tips for general good health. That makes sense. The body is a unit made of many separate, but intertwined parts. The skin and nails on your hands will benefit from a basic, everyday healthful routine.
If you want to keep your hands and fingernails healthy, smooth and young-looking, think about what you eat. Research has found that a diet that has plenty of vitamin C but goes easy on the fats and carbohydrates may help skin look younger. Make sure that you stay well hydrated as well. External conditions -- dry air, harsh soaps and the like -- can cause dry skin. Drinking plenty of water helps your skin retain moisture.
Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun. Use a moisturizer with sunblock or a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or more on the backs of your hands every day. Avoiding cigarettes also helps: Smoking makes your skin -- including that on your hands -- look older and more wrinkled. It also stains the fingernails.
Stress that isn't managed well can damage skin and nails. If you have problems with rashes or eczema on your hands, stress is likely to cause a flare-up. Stress also can make the nails more brittle. And if you're prone to nail-biting, stress can send you back to your old, bad habit