Why You Should Think Twice Before Picking Up That Festive Holiday Soap, According to a Dermatologist

published Nov 1, 2020
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When you live in a small space like an apartment, making the most of your storage is key. This goes double for holiday decorations, which often go straight into storage after the season ends. That’s why I’ve found that tonal decor makes so much more sense in a place with limited storage options: You could invest in a Santa-themed Le Creuset pot to use year-round, or you could drop money on the brand’s standard red Dutch oven to evoke a sense of holiday cheer in the winter months, and not earn quizzical looks when you use the same pot in July.

Because my apartment has two closets and not much else in the way of storage space, I’ve only collected a few small holiday trinkets over the years—so when I’m looking for an easy, low-cost way to infuse holiday cheer into my space, I look to winterize the things I’m using every day. By swapping out the hand soap in the kitchen and bathroom the minute the clocks strike midnight on Nov. 1, I thought I was foisting the holidays onto my apartment with minimal effort—that is, until I realized the practice might be doing more harm than good.

I started this tradition a few years ago when I realized that all of my favorite holiday memories have some sort of smell attached to them. I also grew up in Southern California, where winter was never defined by snow days and crackly fires so much as it was heralded in by the faux-woodsy chemical aromas that permeated the local mall. Where some people smell the fuzzy, vaguely citrusy fumes of an evergreen tree, I smell Bath & Body Works.

Enter hand soap, the ubiquitous necessity that is available at every price point, and which always seems to become more fragrant when you mix it with hot water. As Dr. Joshua Zeichner, an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told Apartment Therapy, you want to make sure you’re using something gentle when washing your hands specifically (though there will always be the rebel who washes their hands with dish soap, a hack that definitely doesn’t work the other way around).

“The pH and the active ingredients in soaps differ depending on what they are supposed to clean,” Dr. Zeichner said, calling both skin and “inanimate objects” like dishes or clothes as examples. “Dish soaps and detergents are much harsher and more alkaline than most body soap and may cause irritation with extended exposure.” People with really sensitive hands might benefit from washing their dishes while wearing gloves, and others might benefit from avoiding soaps and cleansers with harsh fragrances, which Dr. Zeichner said are often added to soap for a “sensorial experience,” and don’t impact the efficacy of the product one way or the other.

In fact, he added, “In some cases, they may be harmful, leading to skin allergies.”

While he noted that the skin on our hands is generally thicker than other parts of the body, and therefore is usually more resistant to irritation, the fact that you are likely washing your hands longer and more thoroughly than ever this year might test that resilience. “Repeated hand-washing and exposure to water and soaps can still lead to significant skin irritation on the hands,” he said. To that end, he recommended people opt for non-soap cleansers as a hand-washing agent (his current favorite is the Pharmacopia Verbena body wash, though the formula does have a fragrance).

Whatever you do, he stressed the need to follow the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines to wash your hands for 20 seconds, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and other germs. “More than that is not necessary and exposes skin to extra water and soap, which can be irritating,” he said. And if you’re worried about winter skin, there’s always a hand cream for that—Dr. Zeichner recommends applying moisturizer no later than five minutes after washing your hands.

Does that mean your favorite seasonal soap is off-limits? Not necessarily. You can still lather up festively if you know you aren’t prone to fragrance sensitivities, but keep an eye out for rashes, itchiness, or cracked skin. And if all else fails, grab a similarly scented candle and cozy up with a plush throw. Sometimes all it takes to set a wintery mood is the right state of mind—just take it from a born and bred Angeleno.