While frequent hand washing does halt the spread of many infectious diseases, it comes with an unwelcome side effect: it can lead to damaged skin, or irritant contact dermatitis. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, frequent and repeated use of hand-hygiene products, particularly soaps and other detergents, is a primary cause of chronic irritant contact dermatitis among healthcare workers.

Dry, cracked hands may not sound serious, but they can be. Dermatitis affects the integrity of the skin as a barrier to bacteria and pathogens. In clinical settings, hand dermatitis can not only lead to increased risk of infection for the sufferer, but to reduced compliance with hand washing guidelines, increasing the spread of pathogens.

Reducing hand hygiene is not the answer, prevention is. The CDC recommends alcohol-based hand sanitizers, especially in healthcare settings, and states that alcohol-based rinses or gels containing emollients caused substantially less skin irritation and dryness than the soaps or antimicrobial detergents tested.

There are certain situations where using hand sanitizers as a replacement for soap and water are not recommended, including after using a restroom, before handling food, and anytime hands are visibly soiled.