Like the majority of cold and flu bugs, health experts state that the virus is spread through droplets transmitted into the air from coughing and sneezing, which people nearby can take in through their nose, mouth or eyes.
However, if the droplets land on surfaces and are picked up on the hands of others, it can spread further.
As a result, health experts say that regular hand-washing is the most effective means of prevention (along with staying at home) with both Public Health England and health secretary Matt Hancock recommending that people wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds at a time to curb the spread of germs.
While vigorous hand-washing and using harsh sanitisers are both vital in reducing the spread of the virus, they can have an adverse effect on the skin, leaving hands feeling dry, cracked and sore.
According to Dr Susan Mayou, a consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic, this is because over time, excessive washing depletes the skin’s natural protective barrier.
“Repetitive hand-washing can damage the integrity of the skin as a barrier, stripping away natural oils and causing hands to become dry, sore and irritated,” Dr Mayou says.
“If you have damaged the skin it becomes less effective as a barrier against infection so moisturising is essential – but definitely don’t stop the hand-washing!”
Dr Adam Friedmann, a consultant dermatologist and clinical lead at The Harley Street Dermatology Clinic, agrees, adding that many people who are adhering to the NHS’s advice will experience “irritant contact eczema – an eczema caused by a chemical, such as soap, irritating the skin”.
So what simple things can we do to reduce irritation? Here is a dermatologists’ guide to looking after your hands during the coronavirus crisis.
Use an anti-microbial hand wash
Both Dr Mayou and Dr Friedmann recommend using a moisturising cleanser to wash your hands instead of traditional soap as it can help to soften and hydrate the skin, especially when you’re suffering from conditions such as eczema or dermatitis. While soothing, the product is an antimicrobial emollient meaning it kills microorganisms and stops their growth.
Alternatively, Dr Mayou suggests looking out for products that contain ingredients such as shea butter and aloe vera.
Invest in fragrance-free hand creams and moisturising masks
After drying your hands or the application of hand-sanitising gel, Dr Friedmann says you should apply a generous layer of hand cream to help keep them nourished, soothe any dry areas and minimise skin irritation.
If you’re looking for a more intense hit of hydration, hand masks are a great treatment method for concentrating ingredients on your digits. Hand masks work just like face masks and while some consist of a thick cream that you apply to the backs of your hands others come in ready-made gloves that you leave on for a while (usually around 10-20 minutes) as the product soaks in and works its moisturising magic. Some of our top picks are Aveeno’s Nourishing Hand Mask and Patchology’s Perfect Ten Self-Warming Hand Mask.
Wearing gloves will provide an added layer of protection and are particularly beneficial when cleaning, Dr Mayou says.
“Many household cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that can be damaging to the skin, causing an irritant dermatitis,” she explains, while Dr Friedmann adds that rubber gloves should only be worn for short periods as they may exacerbate skin conditions.
“The trouble with wearing non-breathable gloves is that sweat will build up and this can actually worsen the situation as sweat can be quite an irritant,” he explains.
Dr Mayou adds that wearing gloves outside will give a layer of protection against the elements, which can also be drying to the skin, while applying a thick layer of hand cream at night with cotton gloves before bed can help nourish and repair skin.
Dry your hands properly
In addition to regular washing, Dr Friedmann states that not drying your hands properly can have a drying effect on the skin as it strips the skin’s natural oils when it evaporates.
Dr Mayou agrees, adding that drying your hands thoroughly is also important in reducing the transmission of bacteria and viruses, which is more likely to occur from wet skin.
“Single use paper hand towels are more hygienic than electric hand dryers in reducing the risk of transmitting viruses. If using a hand dryer, ensure hands are dried thoroughly – do not finish the drying process by wiping hands on jeans or clothing as these may not be clean and may transfer infection back onto the hands,” Dr Mayou says.
“In the home, cloth hand towels should be changed frequently, especially if used by several people, to prevent transmission of infection.”
Seek expert help
If your hands are inflamed, itchy, swollen or painful and showing no signs of improvement, Dr Mayou suggests it could be time to seek advice from a dermatologist for treatment and to determine if there is an underlying cause of the condition.
Dr Friedmann adds that people should seek help the moment that the hand condition is making life uncomfortable or unbearable.
“We can undertake tests to ascertain whether this is an allergy or an irritant eczema and give treatment,” he says.
Read more about how to properly wash your hands here