Skin Rashes From Handwashing

Regular handwashing is important for many reasons. It prevents contamination of food and reduces the transmission of infections.

Some people, however, can develop a rash on their hands from washing their hands. A rash can occur as a result of water, temperature, certain soaps, or overwashing.

This article explains the most common causes of hand rashes caused by handwashing. It also lists signs and symptoms of these rashes and what you can do to prevent and treat them.

Is Hand Washing Giving You a Rash?

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Why Handwashing Can Cause a Rash

The skin is the body's largest organ. Its role is to protect the body from germs and infection. The outermost layer (the epidermis) contains an oily substance called sebum to help maintain the skin’s natural moisture.

A rash from handwashing usually occurs on the back of the hands. It can affect the spaces between the fingers too. The skin on the palms is much thicker and more resistant to irritants and allergic rashes.

Symptoms of hand rashes due to handwashing include dryness, redness, itching, flaking, and in some cases, cracking and bleeding.

Several issues related to handwashing can irritate the skin barrier and cause it to lose its natural oils, leading to a rash.

Overwashing

Washing your hands too frequently can strip the natural oils from the skin. People who work in industries such as food preparation and healthcare must wash their hands frequently. Up to 30% of healthcare workers develop hand rashes.

One alternative to washing your hands is to use an alcohol-based hand cleanser or sanitizer. Alcohol-based cleansers should be used when disinfection is the goal. They cause less irritation on the skin than the repetitive use of soap and water.

Water Temperature

It's best to wash your hands with lukewarm or cool water. Hot water is more damaging and drying to the skin and is not any more effective at eliminating germs on the hands.

Air temperature and humidity may also affect the likelihood of developing hand rashes. They are often worse during the dry, cold winter months.

Scrubbing

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you should lather or scrub your hands for 20 seconds in order to prevent transmission of infection.

Scrubbing too vigorously (especially with a nail brush or rough cloth) or for too long, however, can remove natural oils from the skin and cause irritation. After washing, pat your hands dry with a towel rather than rubbing them, or use an air dryer.

Soaking

Bathing or soaking your hands for too long can dry out the skin. Limit baths, showers, and hand soaking to 10 to 15 minutes and moisturize immediately afterward.

Irritation or Allergic Reaction

Some people's skin is especially sensitive to certain soaps or other cleansing products. This type of reaction is known as dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a skin condition in which your skin becomes red, sore, and inflamed when it comes into contact with a particular substance.

Another form of dermatitis is allergic contact dermatitis. This occurs when your skin touches something that causes you to have an allergic reaction. You can be allergic to some soaps.

Changing the soap you use will help get rid of these symptoms. Using a mild, fragrance-free soap without alcohol, dyes, or fragrances is one way to combat a soap allergy.

Woman with rash after washing hands too much

aerogondo / Getty Images

Treatment and Prevention

One way to prevent hand rashes is to reduce the irritating effects of handwashing.

In addition to washing with lukewarm or cool water, not scrubbing or soaking hands for too long, and avoiding harsh cleansers, it's important to moisturize your skin right after washing it or anytime it feels too dry. It's best to use creams and ointments instead of lotions, as they are richer.

Petroleum jelly (Vaseline is one brand) is a good choice, as does not contain skin irritating ingredients such as lanolin and preservatives. Other effective moisturizing ingredients include shea butter and coconut oil.

Once you have a hand rash, you can often treat it with over-the-counter medicines. These medications can help with any itchiness and discomfort until your rash goes away. Make sure you follow the directions on the medication label. Common over-the-counter treatments for hand rash include:

Other Possible Causes of Hand Rash

There are many other causes of hand rashes, including certain diseases and infections. In these situations, there are typically other symptoms besides a rash. Possible causes of hand rashes include:

  • Bites and stings: Sometimes insect bites and stings on or near the hands can cause a rash. Additional symptoms may include redness, swelling, and itching. In some cases, anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction, can occur, requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Fifth disease: Fifth disease is common in children, but adults can get it too. In addition to a skin rash, symptoms include runny nose, fever, and headache.
  • Impetigo: Some skin rashes are caused by a skin infection called impetigo. It's caused by the bacteria group A Streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. When this kind of bacteria infects your skin, it causes sores that leak pus or a clear liquid before forming scabs.
  • Eczema: Eczema is a common skin condition also known as atopic dermatitis. It affects around 15 million Americans and causes scaly or bumpy patches of skin, as well as itching, dryness, and redness.
  • Fungal infection: Symptoms of fungal infection on the skin include red, itchy, flaky skin, as well as swelling. If you get a fungal infection on your skin, your doctor will prescribe an anti-fungal medication.
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease: Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a highly contagious illness that is common among children under age 5. Symptoms include a rash (usually on the palms or soles of the feet), sores in the mouth, and fever.
  • Kawasaki disease: Kawasaki disease, also known as Kawasaki syndrome, usually affects kids 5 years old and younger. It affects mostly boys. Symptoms of Kawasaki disease include fever, swollen hands and feet, irritation and inflammation around the mouth, lips, and throat, and redness in the whites of the eyes.

Most rashes go away on their own. But sometimes you may need to see a healthcare provider for a hand rash. If you are an adult, see a doctor about your rash if:

  • The rash is located all over your body
  • The rash appears suddenly and spreads quickly
  • You have a fever as well as a rash
  • The rash is full of blisters
  • The rash hurts
  • The rash is infected


If a child has a skin rash, consult a healthcare provider if:

  • The skin turns lighter when you press on the rash
  • Your child has hives
  • The rash is infected
  • The rash has fluid-filled bubbles

Summary

It's important to wash your hands regularly to stop the spread of infection. However, washing too frequently or incorrectly can strip off the natural oils on the top layer of the skin.

This can result in a hand rash, with symptoms such as dryness, itchiness, redness, and cracked skin. To prevent a hand rash, avoid washing with hot water or harsh soaps. Refrain from soaking or scrubbing the hands too vigorously, and apply a thick moisturizer after washing.

A Word From Verywell

If you're developing symptoms of a hand rash, try switching to lukewarm water and mild cleansers, and avoid rubbing and soaking the skin for too long. If your rash persists, check with a healthcare provider, who can advise you on the best way to treat the rash. It's also important to seek treatment right away if you have other symptoms in addition to a hand rash.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a soap allergy look like?

    When you have a soap allergy, your skin becomes inflamed, dry, and cracked. Lighter skin may redden. Darker skin tones may appear gray, dark brown, or purple.

  • Why do my hands keep getting rashes?

    You may be getting hand rashes for a variety of reasons. For example, if your skin constantly comes into contact with cleaning fluids or industrial chemicals, you may get a hand rash. You may be allergic to the soap you use on a daily basis. Some people have a condition called eczema, which causes a rash as well.

  • How long does it take for a skin allergic reaction to go away?

    Mild skin allergic reactions usually go away after a few days or weeks. But if your rash sticks around for a long time, call a healthcare provider. You should also call if the rash is extremely uncomfortable, located on your face, or covers your whole body.

18 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Show me the science - why wash your hands?.

  2. UC Davis Health. Preventing another Covid-19 problem: Skin irritation from handwashing.

  3.  American Academy of Dermatology Association. Dry, scaly, and painful hands could be hand eczema.

  4. Hamnerius N, Svedman C, Bergendorff O, Björk J, Bruze M, Pontén A. Wet work exposure and hand eczema among healthcare workers: a cross-sectional study. Br J Dermatol. 2018;178(2):452-461. doi:10.1111/bjd.15813

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clean hands count for healthcare providers.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Scrubbing your hands dry? Soaps, moisturizers, and tips to keep your skin healthy.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Irritant & allergic contact dermatitis: Symptoms, diagnosis & causes.

  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Contact dermatitis,

  9. Cleveland Clinic. Eczema (atopic dermatitis): causes, treatment & symptoms.

  10. Michigan Medicine. Skin rashes: home treatment.

  11. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Public Website. Insect sting allergies: symptoms & treatment.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About fifth disease.

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Impetigo: all you need to know.

  14. Sepsis Alliance. Fungal infections.

  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms and diagnosis of hand, foot, and mouth disease.

  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Kawasaki disease.

  17. American Academy of Dermatology. Rash 101 in adults: when to seek medical treatment.

  18. Hamilton Health Sciences. Rashes in kids-when to worry.

By Daniel More, MD
Daniel More, MD, is a board-certified allergist and clinical immunologist. He is an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and currently practices at Central Coast Allergy and Asthma in Salinas, California.