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How to care for your hands

It’s often said that the state of your hands gives away your age, but if you’re not careful, they can even make you seem much older. These hardworking helpers wear out easily: not only do they carry out a plenitude of tactile tasks each day but the skin on the hands lacks the oil glands found on other areas of the body, important for skin moisture and protection.

We’re also known to hold our stress in our hands, clenching them into tight fists. Our diligent paws deserve as much attention as the skin on the face and other areas of the body, as their health is essential for us to carry out daily chores. And, from an aesthetic perspective, some would say they’re the ultimate accessory.

Maintaining the skin’s protective barrier is probably the most important measure to ensure the health of the skin on the hands. It’s the breakdown of this protection through the constant abuse from washing, unprotected sun exposure and contact with harsh cleaning products and solvents that causes problems. Once the barrier is compromised, the skin is far more vulnerable to severe dryness, dermatitis and infection.

Hand creams are essential to replenish the skin with lipids (fats and oils), offer protection and thus reinforce the skin’s barrier system. They also keep the skin looking soft. They are best used regularly throughout the day, ideally after hand washing or after immersing hands in water, which dries them out. To rejuvenate the skin, lock in moisture and protect it from environmental assault, a good hand cream contains these essential ingredients: fats, oils, butters and waxes.

These can include cold-pressed vegetable and nut oils, butters such as shea or cocoa butter and waxes such as beeswax or carnauba wax and humectants to attract moisture from the atmosphere and keep the skin well hydrated. Some good humectants include seaweed extracts rich in hydrating minerals, glycerine, honey, aloe vera and hyaluronic acid.

It’s also good to have water present in a hand cream to keep the skin’s layers soft and supple. Regular hand masks made with ingredients such as honey, yoghurt, olive oil, almond meal and oatmeal will also keep the skin on your hands lovely.

Using natural ingredients ensures that your hands are being nourished and protected with a mix of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids. It’s helpful to avoid mineral oil (a byproduct of petroleum) in cosmetics. Mineral oil offers no nourishment, robs the skin of fat-soluble vitamins, suffocates the skin and inhibits natural repair.

To prevent sun damage and pigmentation, sunscreen is an essential addition to daily hand care. The sun is responsible for 90 per cent of premature ageing of the skin, so when you apply it to your face, remember to extend it to your hands. Go chemical-free — not only do harsh chemicals strip the skin, but we often put our hands to our mouths while eating, so where possible seek out natural formulations.

Here’s a rich hand balm that’s perfect for dry skin on the hands. Massage it into your hands in the evening, pop on some cotton gloves and sleep on it.

 

Healing hand balm with shea butter & sandalwood

10g cocoa butter

10g shea butter

12g beeswax

4 tbsp jojoba oil

1 tsp honey

25 drops sandalwood essential oil

5 drops calendula essential oil

Method

Melt all the waxes and oils (except the essential oils) using the double boiler method. Or sit a glass Pyrex jar in a pot of boiling water over open heat. Once the ingredients are melted, stir well. Take off heat. Mix in essential oils well and pour into amber-coloured jars.

Dermatitis on the hands

This common skin condition, also known as hand eczema, has various triggers: genetic allergy (atopic), contact with irritants (injury or contact dermatitis), hormones or fungal growth (seborrheic dermatitis). It can also be multi-factorial. It’s very common in industries involving cleaning, catering, hairdressing, healthcare, metalwork and mechanical work. It can be mild or severe and symptoms include dry, red and itchy skin that progress to itchy papules (bumps) and fluid-filled blisters, scaling, cracking, weeping and swelling. Bacterial infection can result in pustules, crusting and pain. Longstanding dermatitis at the ends of the fingers may lead to deformed nails.

The most common occupational factor leading to dermatitis is frequent immersion of the hands in water, especially if exposed to detergents or solvents that strip the skin of its natural protective layer. This is called irritant contact dermatitis. Allergy is when the skin is hypersensitive to a particular substance that doesn’t seem to affect other people. There are many items and substances that can cause allergic contact dermatitis including nickel, fragrances and rubber. Infections such as tinea can also cause hand dermatitis.

Treatment depends on the cause. If it’s a contact allergy, remove the allergen. Those who suffer allergic eczema (usually also have hayfever and other signs of allergies) should seek the advice of an allergist or other health practitioner. However, generally speaking, it’s important to keep the hands as dry as possible, so reduce washing and wear cotton-lined gloves. Also, apply an emollient constantly to provide some protection. Stress is known to aggravate dermatitis, so where possible try to relax.

There are some essential oils that can help to maintain hand health. When you’ve identified the right oil for the job, mix a total of 20 drops per 100ml of base oil or cream. Tea-tree oil works well for fungal infections, including those of the nails. Other essential oils can also be helpful and be included in your hand creams and balms or put into oil. Aromatherapist and author of The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia, suggests applications of german chamomile, true lavender and sandalwood help with itching caused by dermatitis.

Anti-inflammatory oils such as german chamomile, yarrow and everlasting will help enhance the healing of skin lesions. Juniper berry is astringent and will help with oozing. If there is an infection, tea-tree and lavender are helpful with their anti-bacterial properties. Oils that help with stress include chamomile, bergamot, Virginian cedarwood, lavender, geranium and ylang ylang. For chronic dry lesions, try german chamomile, true lavender, palmarosa and patchouli. Calendula is regenerative and healing and makes a valuable addition to any hand preparation.

 

Eat well for beautiful hands

For dryness and dermatitis, eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in good quantities in foods such as flaxseeds and cold-water fish. Evening primrose normalises essential fatty acid imbalance ad reduces symptoms of eczema. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, especially in B vitamins, zinc, and vitamins A and E, can contribute to dermatitis. Dairy, gluten and sugar aggravate eczema.

If your hands become stiff, certain foods such as the nightshades (tomato, eggplant) can aggravate conditions such as arthritis. Foods that contain oxalic acid such as plums, chard, spinach, rhubarb and cranberries should also be avoided, as well as calcium inhibitors such as refined foods. Consuming too much animal product (including dairy and red meat), alcohol, coffee and excess salt can also have a negative effect. Certain foods can be helpful, including green foods such as spirulina, whole grains, cold-water fish, green vegies, carrots and avocado.

For sun spots, bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice can be helpful, as can yoghurt, which contains skin-brightening lactic acid. Mix 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, 2 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda and 2 teaspoons of yoghurt and massage the mixture into the skin with a soft toothbrush. You can add ¼ teaspoon of vitamin C powder to the mix and leave on the hands for 20 minutes. Vitamin C is renowned for both its exfoliating and pigment-reducing properties.

Rosehip oil is also helpful for rejuvenating the skin as it’s rich in essential fatty acids and retinoic acid, a gentler form of retin-A, also popularly used to treat sun spots. It can be massaged into the hands at night and left on. Essential oils with wound-healing and regenerative properties such as frankincense, rose, neroli, myrrh, chamomile, carrot seed, patchouli, everlasting, lavender, calendula and yarrow help to stimulate cell turnover and expose a newer, more radiant skin. It’s important to get all spots checked regularly to ensure they’re not pre-cancerous.

A great way to keep hands looking young is to keep them strong, active and agile. Knitting, embroidery and even typing work wonders for keeping them nimble. Stretch them regularly and shake out all the stress. Yoga is also wonderful for strengthening the hands.

Fingernails

Strong, lustrous fingernails are the result of a healthy diet, good digestion and the use of nutrient-rich topical applications. Nutritionist Alison Cassar stresses our fingernails are among the main barometers for poor nutrition. “They are a low-priority organ, so if we don’t have enough nutrients in our body, or we’re not assimilating them properly, they miss out — and this will show up in the way they look.”

She says flaws in the surfaces of your fingernails are often a sign that something isn’t right. “White spots on the nails are usually caused by a deficiency of either calcium or zinc. When there are deficiencies of these nutrients, a bump to the nail can cause these white spots.” Other signs of compromised health are longitudinal ridges on the nails. Alison says these can suggest poor liver function or poor protein digestion.

She adds, “The main nutrients for the nails are those that support connective tissue: vitamin C, zinc, calcium, magnesium, silica, MSM, omega-3, -6, -9, glucosamine and chondroitin. Vitamin B, especially B5, is also important. Probiotics are very helpful as they promote good digestion. Check with a naturopath as nutrient supplements can be helpful, although should never be used as a replacement for a healthy diet,” she stresses.

The fingernails, like the hands, get a good workout on a daily basis. Submerging nails constantly in water makes the nails swell, then drying them makes them shrink — a regular cycle that makes the nails become brittle. Many nail strengtheners on the market work by drying out the nails’ vital oils, making them brittle.

Nail polishes are often as bad, containing undesirable chemicals with health implications. These include toluene and formaldehyde and di-n-butyl phthalate — many now banned in some countries. Thankfully, new nail technology offers non-toxic water-based polishes that avoid the plasticisers and solvents in conventional products. Avoid nail removers that contain acetone, which dries out the nails. A deficiency in iron can also make the nails brittle.

A simple, healthy nail strengthener is unrefined vegetable or nut oil. Olive oil is both nourishing and high in polyphenols, highly efficient antioxidants that help protect your nails. Keep a small bottle of oil near your work desk and, every so often, rub oil into your nails. Other oils that work equally well include sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, macadamia nut oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil.

Massaging your fingernails and cuticle area with oil will also help to keep them flexible and strong, preventing brittleness, hangnails, and ragged cuticles. It will stimulate circulation, thereby encouraging better growth. Soaking your nails in horsetail tea for five minutes daily can help strengthen them. The stems of the horsetail plant are rich in silica, vital for healthy nails, bones and hair.

 

Natural manicure

The following is a simple, healthy way to keep your nails looking gorgeous naturally.

Clean up

Use nail clippers to clean up the nails. Don’t cut the cuticles, where the skin meets the nail, as these help prevent the skin from infection.

Pamper and strengthen

Soak your hands in warm full-fat milk with a splash of olive oil for five minutes. Not only is milk loaded with lactic acid, a natural alpha hydroxy acid that gently exfoliates dead skin cells, but its high calcium content will strengthen the nails. If hands sport ingrained dirt, make a scrub out of an equal mix of raw sugar, vegetable oil and honey to remove. Lemon juice helps to remove stains from nails.

Shape them

Shape nails with a nail file. File in one direction only. Square shape with round corners makes the nail snap-proof.

Cuticle care

Push back cuticles gently with an angle-tipped nail stick lightly wrapped in cotton wool. Gently push back the cuticles towards the base of the nail.

Buff to high gleam

Use a smooth-surfaced buffer to buff the entire surface of nails, using a side-to-side motion. Do this gently but swiftly and don’t allow heat to build up. If your nails are weak, don’t do this too often as it can make them more fragile.

Massage

Apply moisturiser and give your hands and nails a massage. This helps to relieve stress for the wellbeing of the whole body.

Carla Oates

Carla Oates

Carla Oates is the CEO of The Beauty Chef, a natural beauty expert and the author of Feeding Your Skin and The Beauty Chef Cookbook.

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