- Hand eczema can cause peeling, itching, blisters, and painful cracking in your skin.
- Gently washing and moisturising your hands and trying OTC hydrocortisone may help ease symptoms.
- Talk to your doctor about symptoms that don't improve, severe pain, or signs of infection.
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There are seven different kinds of eczema, one of which occurs specifically in the hands. Hand eczema is particularly common among people who regularly handle chemicals and other irritants, such as hairdressers, professional cleaners, food handlers, and healthcare workers.
People with hand eczema may experience:
- Peeling, flaking, and scaling
- Painful cracks in the skin
- Tiny, itchy blisters on the fingers and palms of the hands.
Dermatologists say the following home eczema treatments can help relieve itching, dryness, and other common symptoms.
What causes eczema?
When the outermost layer of your skin, or skin barrier, becomes weakened or damaged, allergens and irritants can seep into your skin more easily.
When your immune system then recognizes these allergens or irritants, it responds with inflammation, which causes eczema symptoms.
Other factors that might contribute to eczema include:
- Environmental irritants, such as dust mites or cold or damp weather
- Genetics, or a family history of the condition
A 2013 study found that psychological stress is a significant contributor to atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema. Researchers believe the link relates to the direct and indirect negative effects stress can have on immune response and skin barrier function. Additionally, a small 2018 study found stress increases the urge to scratch, which can then make eczema symptoms worse.
1. Learn your triggers
- Fragrance mix
- Potassium dichromate, commonly found in wood preservatives, textile dyes, steel tools, printing inks, anti-corrosion paints, and some jewelry and cosmetics
- Dish soap
- Scented baby wipes
Take note of the ingredients in cleaning and other household products you handle regularly. Laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets can cause an allergic reaction because they often contain fragrances. Ideally, look for products labeled hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, or "for sensitive skin."
Wearing impermeable hypoallergenic gloves made of synthetic nitrile may help protect your hands when dealing with potential irritants. Just avoid latex or rubber gloves, as these common irritants can exacerbate eczema, says Cybele Fishman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology, P.C.
2. Moisturize your hands after washing
Washing your hands strips away the natural oils on your skin, which can exacerbate the dryness, itchiness, and other symptoms of eczema.
That's why you'll want to apply a moisturiser immediately after washing your hands, says Erum Ilyas, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology Group. A moisturiser can help to protect the outer layer of your skin.
Look for a rich hand cream or ointment with high oil content. Ingredients like glycerin, shea butter, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides help your skin to maintain and attract moisture, says Fishman. Petroleum jelly is also very effective at locking in moisture.
Fishman also recommends applying moisturiser before you go to sleep at night and wearing cotton gloves to help your skin better absorb it.
3. Wear gloves during the winter
There's a reason why hand eczema can get worse for some people in response to extreme weather — like the frigid conditions of wintertime.
"Dry, cold air can pull away moisture from your skin," says Ilyas.
Fishman and Ilyas agree that wearing gloves or mittens can help protect your skin and prevent this from happening. Wool and some synthetic fabrics can make itching worse, so opt for cotton or silk gloves instead.
Using a humidifier in your home during the dryer months may also prove helpful.
4. Practice gentle hand hygiene
Since hot water can dry out skin and increase inflammation, Ilyas recommends using lukewarm water and a fragrance-free soap to shower and wash your hands.
Antibacterial and antiseptic hand washes tend to be very harsh on the skin, so try a milder soap but make sure to follow proper hand hygiene, like washing your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, to get rid of illness-causing bacteria.
Always remember to remove rings before washing, as jewelry can trap irritants and water against the skin on your fingers, thus potentially triggering or worsening eczema. After washing your hands, gently pat them dry — rubbing vigorously can further irritate your skin.
5. Reduce stress
If you suspect life stressors may be contributing to your eczema flare-ups, prioritise self-care — getting enough sleep and regular exercise — and try stress management techniques such as meditation and deep breathing exercises.
Consider connecting with a therapist if stress has an ongoing impact on your mood or emotional health.
6. Avoid scratching your skin
While it can be tempting to scratch itchy skin, Fishman says it's important to avoid this as much as possible. Scratching can actually make eczema worse because it triggers the inflammation response. Not only that, scratching vigorously enough to break the skin leaves you more prone to scarring and infection.
Keeping your fingernails short can help minimize damage when you can't resist the urge to scratch.
7. Apply over-the-counter hydrocortisone
Hydrocortisone creams and ointments can reduce inflammation and ease some eczema symptoms, like redness and itching. To minimise any potential side effects like temporary skin thinning, stinging, or burning, apply a thin layer once daily to the affected area, avoiding any cuts, and always follow the product instructions.
While the ideal strength will depend on the severity of your eczema, 1% hydrocortisone is generally a safe amount for this condition, says Fishman.
If you don't notice improvement within a week, check in with your doctor before you continue using these over-the-counter medications.
When to connect with your doctor
If your symptoms don't improve or you keep getting frequent flare-ups despite trying the above treatments for eczema, Fishman recommends reaching out to a dermatologist or your regular doctor.
Some signs that you should connect with a doctor as soon as possible are:
- Pain and discomfort that affects daily activities and sleep
- Pus, yellow scabs, or other signs of a possible infection
- Painful cracks or fissures in the skin that may increase the risk of infection
Not only can a doctor help to identify allergens and irritants through skin and blood tests, but they can also prescribe medication, including:
- Topical steroids that are stronger than over-the-counter hydrocortisone.
- Topical calcineurin inhibitors, such as tacrolimus (Protopic) and pimecrolimus (Elidel). These nonsteroidal medications prevent some immune cells from activating and triggering eczema symptoms.
- Oral steroids and steroid injections may be prescribed for particularly severe or resistant cases.
"For some resistant cases, other interventions, like light therapy, may be considered," says Ilyas.
Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is an FDA-approved intervention that exposes your skin to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light exposure can suppress the inflammatory responses that trigger eczema and reduce your risk of infection.
Light therapy typically involves:
- Two to six weekly sessions that last one to several minutes
- Four weeks to three months of treatment
- An appointment at a dermatology practice, hospital, or doctor's office.
There's no known cure or single cause of eczema, but most cases are triggered by contact with irritants and allergens — such as those found in many cosmetic and household cleaning products. Dermatologists advise avoiding common irritants by seeking out hypoallergenic and fragrance-free products, as well as protecting your skin by washing hands with lukewarm water, moisturising often, and wearing gloves in the cold.
Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and ointments can help, but if symptoms don't get better in a week or so, check in with your doctor. They can offer more guidance on identifying potential triggers, plus prescribe a stronger topical treatment or other intervention, like phototherapy.