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Everything You Need to Wash Your Hands, According to People Who Wash Their Hands a Lot

Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive/Getty

With panic over the coronavirus spreading faster than the illness itself, it’s tempting to stock up on face masks or barricade yourself inside your apartment with a year’s worth of canned food. However, the actual advice offered by public-health officials everywhere, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, is far less dramatic: Stay home if you’re sick, keep your distance from someone who’s coughing or sneezing, try not to touch your face, and wash your hands frequently. It may not feel as proactive as that hazmat suit you’ve been eyeing, but thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water for around 20 seconds (which feels way longer than it sounds) is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and others around you.

Since doctors say any standard soap will do the job — in fact, dermatologist Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology cautions to “stay clear of antibiotic cleansers, which can lead to bacterial resistance” — you might as well get something that feels nice on your skin and has a tolerable, maybe even pleasant, smell. All that handwashing will likely dry out your hands, too, so it’s a good idea to pick up some cream or lotion to keep them feeling soft.

For most of us, this is likely the most attention we’ve ever paid to washing our hands. But for people in certain professions where sanitation is essential — like doctors, chefs, and teachers — it’s, pardon the pun, old hand. To help the rest of us out in these times of frenetic ablution, we asked a panel of experienced hand-washers about what they use to stay clean and avoid dry, cracked skin.

Best hand soaps

Marc Bauer, a chef and senior director of culinary and pastry arts at the International Culinary Center, estimates that he washes his hands as many as 40 times each day. Although he often doesn’t have a choice about what soap is available in the kitchen, at home he likes Trader Joe’s orange or lemon hand soap because of the “very subtle fragrance.”

Chef Frank Proto, director of culinary operations at the Institute of Culinary Education (who says he washes his hands up to 35 or 40 times daily), says he has “yet to find a soap that prevents my hands from drying out.” But he has found bar soap to be less drying than liquid. MacGregor also recommends bar soap, specifically this ultragentle, unscented option from Dove. Whatever soap you use, she recommends avoiding “soaps with harsh ingredients and fragrance.”

We learned about this soap from Robyn Coval, co-owner and vice-president of Bowery Kitchen Supplies, back when we went in search of the best products for cleaning cutting boards. Coval says her customers and co-workers love the plant-derived soap, which has moisturizing coconut extract and vitamin E, for washing their hands too. “We can’t keep it in stock,” she says. She describes the lemon verbena scent as “clean, bright, and fresh.”

Note: Stock appears to be running low on Amazon, too, so if you miss out, there’s always this lemon-scented, longtime Strategist favorite from Mrs. Meyer’s.

Best handwashing accessories

According to Proto, contaminating material can get caught in your fingernails, which means they shouldn’t be an afterthought when washing your hands. He keeps a fingernail brush at the sink to get under his nails and scrub away any germs or lasting food residue.

Although reusable dish cloths and shared hand towels are more ecofriendly, you may want to shelve them for a bit if you’re worried about getting sick. Bauer recommends paper towels or, when possible, a hot-air automatic dryer. And “don’t dry [your hands] on your pants,” he warns. “You’ll contaminate them all over again.”

Best moisturizers for post-handwashing

Bauer relies on shea butter to moisturize his hands after frequent washing. “It gives an oily coating that is great in the kitchen,” he says. “It’s also safe to eat, so if you cross-contaminate, it’s not much of an issue.”

Nourishing shea butter is one of the main ingredients in L’Occitane hand cream, which comes recommended by Terrill Caplan, an administrator at a private school in New York City. She received hers as a gift and says it’s been “wonderful” to use after handwashing. “It smells fantastic,” she says. “It’s also not something I would buy for myself so there’s a nice indulgent quality to it.” Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health, is also a L’Occitane fan, and suggested it as a good gift for doctors.

Nivea Crème

Both Bauer and Proto use Nivea cream at home to help heal their hands after all of those washings. “I don’t want my hands to feel greasy,” Proto says. He also likes that Nivea doesn’t leave his hands feeling sticky. Bauer, who puts the cream on at night, says, “It gives a good moisturizing shield for a long time.”

While MacGregor says she keeps simple Aquaphor and petroleum jelly around the house for soothing her hands, if you want something a little more luxurious she recommends this rich balm. Compared to something like Vaseline, she says it’s “easier to spread and less greasy.”

This last one may not boost your immune system, but at least it has a fun backstory. Sarah Adelman, a learning specialist at a Brooklyn private school, uses this blend of cassia, clove, rosemary, eucalyptus, and lemon oils after spending the day around sniffling kids. “You are supposed to put a few drops on your palms, rub them together, and then inhale three times,” she says. “Supposedly it kept thieves alive during the Black Plague so they could live another day to steal dead people’s stuff.”

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Everything You Need to Wash Your Hands