Hand Hygiene: Help vs Harm
Whether you sing the Alphabet Song, Happy Birthday, Stayin’ Alive, count slowly to 20 or use a timer, we all know the drill by now – washing your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. While this seems like a simple solution to a complex situation, frequent hand washing and excessive use of hand sanitizers can pose a serious health hazard.
The outermost layer of our skin is composed of oils and wax, and it acts as both a shield from the outside and a guard that maintains natural moisture in the skin. Soaps, no matter how mild, and hand sanitizers do not discriminate between unwanted oil, germs, debris and natural oils in the skin and if this natural barrier is broken down, the skin can become dry, red, itchy and flaky resulting in cracks and fissures. Those with pre-existing dermatologic conditions like eczema can experience worsening symptoms and are even more at risk.
Once the skin has broken down, the open wounds provide an entry point into the body for bacteria which can cause infections. The resulting illness associated with bacterial infections can limit or prevent employees from working.
So how does one maintain the delicate balance between hygiene and harm? Following these easy steps at every stage of hand care can go a long way to ensure hands and skin remain healthy:
- Use a gentle, fragrance free liquid soap rather than bar soap.
- Look for soap with moisturizing ingredients like lanolin, aloe, glycerin, urea, jojoba, cocoa butter.
- Avoid using hot water, warm water is gentler on the skin.
- Don’t over lather, soap strips away the oils and waxes that protect the skin.
- Pat dry, don’t rub. Rubbing can cause microabrasions or small cuts in the skin that can get infected or increase the risk of chapping and fissures
- Paper towels are better than cloth; paper towels are single use and disposable, while cloth can be reused numerous times increasing the risk of viral transmission.
- Wash or change cloth hand towels every 2-3 days and/or assign everyone their own towel, if paper towels are not an option.
- Leave hands a little damp and immediately put on a moisturizer to lock the water in.
- Creams and ointments are better than lotions. Lotions are water-based and can further dry out hands as the water evaporates.
- Topical moisturizers containing humectants, occlusives and/or emollients are effective in protecting the skin barrier.
- Petroleum jelly, like Vaseline, is still one of the best moisturizers.
- Products originally developed for animals such as Bag Balm and Udderly Smooth can provide deep moisturization into layers of the skin.
- Apply moisturizer after every hand washing, before bed and whenever hands feel dry.
- Carry a travel or personal size moisturizer with you.
- Only when washing is not possible or practical.
- Look for sanitizer with a moisturizing base, but remember it may not be as effective at killing germs.
- Make sure the sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol, as it takes using a sanitizer with 75% alcohol for a minimum of 30 seconds to kill the COVID 19 virus.
- Wash hands as soon as possible; hand sanitizer alone does not kill all germs.
- Don’t share sanitizer, keep your own supply readily available.
- Keep open wounds bandaged and use polysporin or a topical antibiotic to prevent infection.
- Consider using liquid skin to seal cracks and open sores to promote healing.
- Wear gloves when working with or handling harsh chemicals like cleaning supplies and anti-bacterial wipes or if your hands are frequently in water.
- Treat severely cracked skin with cotton gloves over a layer of cream, ointment or petroleum jelly for a couple of hours or overnight if possible.
- Use humidifiers to keep moisture in the air and ultimately stop your skin from drying out.
As we navigate our way to the new normal, many things have changed and hand hygiene is one of them. Making sure your organization is prepared by educating your returning staff on proper hand hygiene techniques, ensuring there are convenient handwashing stations and providing an abundant supply of proper soap, hand towels, sanitizer, and moisturizers can help avoid time loss due to hand infections caused by excessive hand washing and sanitizing.
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