BLOOMINGTON -- A key weapon in the war against H1N1 influenza may be drying out our skin this winter, and cracked skin may result in more bacteria entering the body.
The good news is we can fight germs and keep our hands moist, Central Illinois doctors and skin care professionals said. Just use hand sanitizer only when you can't get to water and soap, and follow hand washing and sanitizing with moisturizing.
"It's a balance," said Dr. Steven Quimby, with Advocate BroMenn Dermatology, Normal.
The public health community has good reason to recommend anti-bacterial hand gel to reduce the risk of transmission of H1N1 and other illnesses, he said. But frequent use of a moisturizer is vital to offset the skin-drying action of hand sanitizers.
Many hand sanitizers are made with alcohol, which kills germs but also dries skin.
"I have noticed more dryness in hands, particularly in my own hands," said Dr. Uday Deoskar, a geriatric specialist and owner of the Successful Aging Center, Bloomington.
Two aestheticians (skin care professionals) - Emily Trefzger Campos and Katie Dozier - said more clients have been coming in with dry skin on their fingers and hands since fall.
"I noticed a big change beginning at the end of November and early December," said Dozier, who works at First Edition, a salon in Bloomington. Treating more dry skin is common in winter but Dozier is seeing more this year.
Dozier attributes the profound dryness to increased use of hand sanitizers this fall and winter and a winter with few breaks from the cold.
Furthermore, she and Trefzger Campos fear that some people may have been using hand sanitizer instead of washing their hands with warm water and soap. Health professionals agree that hand gel should be used only when people don't have immediate access to water and soap.
Alcohol in hand sanitizers is drying to the skin, which tears down the skin's natural barrier function, Quimby explained.
The skin has a fine coating of oil, which helps to protect it and keep it soft, Quimby said. In turn, the skin protects the entire body.
"The skin is the largest organ of the body," said Trefzger Campos, who works at Oasis Medical Spa & Wellness at Twin City Plastic Surgery, Bloomington. "It protects us, so we need to protect it."
When alcohol and other chemicals are applied frequently to the skin, they dry out and irritate the skin, Deoskar explained. When the skin cracks, it's easy for bacteria to get into the body, which may cause infection and discomfort.
But overuse of hand sanitizer isn't the only thing to blame. Alcohol-containing antibacterial wipes - which people have been using in supermarkets, at fitness centers, at work, in cars and at home - have been good tools to kill germs but they also have been drying our hands, doctors said.
In addition, wetting and drying hands throughout the day - without applying moisturizer - depletes the skin of its natural oil, Quimby said. Wet-dry cycles are more frequent during winter as gloves get wet from shoveling snow and cleaning snow from vehicles.
Cold, dry air outside; warm, dry air inside; inadequate water intake; use of detergent-based soaps and using household cleaning products without wearing gloves all contribute to dry hands this time of year, doctors and aestheticians said.
Older adults lose sweat glands so water evaporates from their skin more quickly, Deoskar said.