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Over-Washing My Hands Has Been a Lifelong Symptom of My OCD—Here’s How I Learned Combat the Harsh Effects on My Skin

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And found hand acceptance in the process.

I’ve developed something of a fascination with having pretty hands. In moments of boredom, I often find myself inspecting my fingers and making sure my cuticles aren’t unruly. Despite my best efforts, though, this is a thankless task. Like Sisyphus and his boulder, I fear I will be unable to achieve the perfectly manicured hands of my dreams.

My fixation with my hands goes beyond simple aesthetics—it stems from my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health disorder that the DSM-5 characterizes as,” Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive, unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress.”

For some people—myself included—the disorder manifests with an obsession around germs or getting sick. As a result, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time scrubbing my hands raw in an effort to feel clean. The winter I was 15, I vividly remember picking up my pen to write notes in English class and feeling fissions open up across every knuckle. The pain danced across my hands, which had been stripped from overwashing, and was so intense it left me unable to concentrate on the text I was meant to be studying.

In the years since, this has become a familiar pattern, and the dryness gets significantly worse during the colder months when there’s less moisture in the air to combat it. Beyond the pain, the very visible sign that there’s something wrong is aesthetically unappealing and drags down my mood. If I ever have to shake hands with someone at work (already a challenge—the horrors of the bacteria transfer!), I try not to see their eyes flicker down to my chicken claw-esque digits as they register the unpleasant scaliness. On top of that, the dryness turns my hands bright red, which makes them stand out even more, and has led to the (very annoying) unsolicited advice that I should “just try moisturizing more.”

Needless to say, the years of hand sanitizers, soaps, harsh chemicals, and—on occasion—scouring sponges left a lasting mark. For starters, because soap has a higher pH level than the skin (9 to 10 for soap versus 5 to 6 for skin), it messes with the acid mantle and strips the skin. Add to that the harsh, drying effects of alcohol and chemicals and the barrier-ravishing damage that scrubbing can cause, and my hands needed some serious help.

I’ve tried countless solutions for the sake of the cause—testing out different hand creams, deep-moisturizing my hands overnight, wearing heavy-duty gloves in the winter, changing up the soaps I use—all to little or no avail. The best I’ve been able to hope for is a temporary respite, because eventually, each of these methods has lost its effectiveness.

After years of these experiments, I’d pretty much lost all hope. But according to Katherine Armour, MD a cosmetic dermatologist in Australia and the founder of Bespoke Skin Technology, I shouldn’t give up just yet.

“Damage to hands caused by over-washing is almost always completely reversible,” she says. Although it takes diligence and commitment, “the outlook for this condition is very positive.”

Knowing this, I recently set out to try some new experiments to care for my hands—this time, using the advice of dermatologists and skin-care experts to back up my attempts. First, I wanted to find a hand cream that really worked to meet my needs, and after testing out a few different options, I finally discovered one that fit the bill: Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve ($22).



Kiehls, Ultimate Strength Hand Salve Moisturizer — $32.00

Given the speed at which I go through hand creams, I’m typically hesitant to invest in pricier options, but this formula is absolutely worth the money. The star ingredients are shea butter (which is rich in antioxidants and vitamin E, and helps retain moisture by forming a protective seal on the surface of the skin); avocado oil (which is packed with fatty acids to condition the skin and help strengthen the skin barrier); and sesame seed oil (which has skin-softening properties)

The salve absorbs quickly and leaves only a hint of residue, and the consistency is thick enough that it feels like it’s actually doing something—a quality that many cheaper products lack. The effect is fairly long-lasting, and with a pleasingly neutral smell, there aren’t any immediate downsides to the product.

What’s more, a little bit of this stuff goes a long way—which is a definite bonus given that it costs $32. Immediately following a light application, my hands feel softer and smoother. And after regularly using it overnight, the dry spots between my fingers pretty much disappeared.

To maximize my moisturizing efforts, I also integrated the widely recommended technique of sealing my hand creams in with gloves overnight. Historically, I’ve used cotton socks to do this, but the pros say that investing in cotton or specialty gloves (which will run you around $10) is absolutely worth the expense. Not only do they prevent me from feeling like an amateur sock puppet artiste, but they also lock in the formula in all the right places to ensure that my whole hand is reaping its benefits.

“A practical home tip is to use a damp pair of white cotton gloves followed by a dry pair over your thick moisturizers and prescribed medical remedies,” says Dr. Armour. “This occlusion increases penetration of your moisturizer and medical remedies and will help flares settle more quickly. It’s also really soothing for cracked areas of the hands.”

I found this ritual particularly relaxing at the end of the day, and began supplementing my daily applications (and re-applications) of Kiehl’s hand cream with a heavy, glove-covered dosage at night. Over time, I noticed real improvements in my skin as well as the quality of my nails and cuticles.



Zentoes, Moisturizing Gloves With Gel Lining — $13.00

These speciality gloves take the guesswork out of the “wet/dry” process that Dr. Armour mentioned. Lined with jojoba oil and Vitamin E-infused gel, they’ll lock in moisture while offering additional deep conditioning benefits to your hands.

Pros: 

  • Lined with gel
  • Reusable
  • Contains their own moisturizing ingredients
  • Comes in multiple colors

Cons:

  • Only comes in one size



Cotton Gloves (30 Pieces) — $10.00

In this case, the basics may be all you need, and that’s where these bare-bones cotton gloves come in. Use two at a time (one wet, one dry) to get maximum results from your hand moisturizers.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Easy to wash and reuse

Cons:

  • Requires a little bit of legwork to perfect the “wet/dry” method.

These days, I’ve learned to manage my OCD so that it’s a far less invasive presence in my life. It’s still there, but most of the time it’s a mildly irritating convenience instead of a debilitating condition. And with the help of a proper product and expert-approved technique, my hands have healed to the point that I’m learning to love them.