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Cracked & Rough…What Real Dairy Farmers Can Do To Take Care of Their Hands

Our hands are the first touch point with the many physical connections dairymen make every day. From shaking hands with a farm visitor to milking cows, we may not realize how important our hands are until they became so dry, cracked and rough that what should be an easy task becomes painful.  How well do your hands withstand winter’s harsh conditions and the 24-7 skin challenges of dairy farming? If you’re answer is “Nothing seems to work” then here is information and several steps you can use to repair, protect and soothe your hands.

Overworked hands are vulnerable hands

The first step in helping your hands to stay healthy is understanding what it is that is causing the problem.  It all starts when the outer layer of skin is compromised.  Ideally, skin is meant to hold onto moisture and rejuvenate itself naturally.  But constant exposure to bad weather, dirt, chemicals and the sun can gradually damage this layer. Let’s take a look closer at four factors that cause damage.

  1. People who consistently have to wash their hands or immerse their hands in water experience a loss of moisture, as the water steals the skin’s natural moisturizing oils away
  2. People who work with chemicals on a daily basis, or who regularly use chemical-based household cleaners, often have severely chapped hands. These chemicals rob the skin of its moisture, and damage the outer layer, leaving skin vulnerable to all kinds of problems.
  3. Old-fashioned soap bars are drying to the skin. Many of today’s commercial clensers and hand soaps also disrupt skin’s natural integrity, which slows the natural process of skin repair and creates dryness and cracking.
  4. Dry air. Air such as that which occurs in dry climates and during the cold, winter months, saps moisture out of the skin.

Other factors, such as medical skin conditions (like psoriasis and eczema), allergens, and certain medications, can also contribute to dry, cracking skin.

Dairy farming is hands on!

Constant use of our hands — especially in winter conditions – can lead to damage.  Once hands become dry and cracked, everything we do with them can make the damage much worse. It sometimes seems like the skin will never feel smooth again.  (I remember my father-in-law’s hands and the measures he would take to speed up the healing process. My heart went out to him each winter as he found creative ways to heal the fissures that opened up in his hands).

Products Suggested On The Milk House

Before we start into the whys and wherefores of hand care, let’s consider what other people have tried.  First we must recognize that not everything works for everyone in the same way. A recent discussion on The Milk House also included suggestions of name brand salves, creams, and lotions (Read more: INTRODUCING THE MILK HOUSE – DAIRY BREEDER NETWORKING ON FACEBOOK). The Bullvine is not making specific promotions or endorsements but merely giving the widest possible picture of what the options might be.

Personal Experiences Provide Hands-On Insight

Many readers of The Bullvine and The Milk House have personal experience with the discomfort of sore hands.  I went to them and other friends in the medical profession and hair salons.  For those who work 24/7 with their hands, taking time off until they heal is not an option.

Several dairy folks, a nurse, and workers in my local hair salon shared what they have learned from trial and error. One suggestion that came from more than one of those whose hands reached the cracked and bleeding stage was using an emery board and finger nail file to sand down the cracks. “I use a fingernail file to move all the dry, dead or thick skin. Getting the old skin off is the key. Afterward, the lotion and salve soak in better.” Those who have tried this agree that the quick heal is worth the brief pain. One intriguing suggestion was to paint the cracks with 2 or 3 layers of clear nail polish. “It’s inexpensive and very effective at protecting those areas.  I can work and just sand and reapply as needed until they heal.” I have personal experience watching husband Murray use Crazy Glue or Super Glue. Some report that this method stings for a few secs when first applied, but Murray reports “It was stinging before the treatment, so it isn’t any more painful, and it protects the opening from germs, and usually heals within 2 to 3 days.” Of course, everyone needs motivation, and Murray maintains that one of his motivators was “my wife”!


Water plays several roles in both good and bad hands. Start with drinking water.  It’s easy to get dehydrated and not realize it. Then there is the water you immerse your hands in during your work day.  On the one hand, it seems that water should be enough for the moisture in your hands.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Constant exposure to water can be very drying, so the first three words to memorize after your hands have been in water are:

“Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize”

After each and every wash, moisturize your hands.  Some even go so far as to carry moisturizer all the time. It’s up to you to take charge of healing parched scaly hands.

“Some Like It Hot! But Cool is Kinder!”

The next step may take changing your headset regarding water temperature.  Use lukewarm water. Water that’s either hot or cold can make the problem worse. So the next time you’re tempted to turn the heat up, make sure lukewarm is the highest you go, if you want your hands to be happy.

“Skip the Bar”

By its very nature dairying makes us conscious of avoiding germs.  Being told to avoid soap if you can, seems to go against the grain. Dermatologists say soap can actually make your skin feel dry, by stripping oils from the skin. If you must use soap, avoid formulas with synthetic fragrances, preservatives, and sulfates, as these are all drying.  Foaming and antibacterial soaps also strip your skin of its natural fats and oils.  One option is to choose moisturizing cleansers instead and be sure you rinse thoroughly.

“Go Undercover! ”

The extreme condition of your working hands means that you must take every opportunity to protect your hands.  A good rule of thumb (pun intended) is to be aware whenever you might be working with something that you wouldn’t apply to your face; you should wear gloves. Yes, this is occasionally inconvenient but think about what you ask your hands to do over and over again.  When hands are healthy, you use them like they are gloved to touch harsh chemicals.  Normally that isn’t a problem because healthy hand skin is a pretty good barrier, but the chapped skin is broken.  “Harsh chemicals get through chapped skin, irritating it like putting lemon juice on a cut.”  The best approach is to wear gloves.  Many feel that wearing milking gloves under work gloves is the right approach. “Lotions for healing cow’s teats and udders worn under nitrile gloves while you milk rally help.  You are using your hands so much when you milk, that it messages your hands at the same time.” A good tip is to avoid vinyl gloves.  They can make skin even more dry.  Instead, use cotton or leather.

“Prevention is 9/10ths of the Cure.”

You may already do many of the things mentioned so far, but sometimes we forget.  The best treatment is always prevention. So whether you’re in the barn, the fields or just washing up in the milkhouse, protect your hands from damage.

“Sleep On It”

This next step doesn’t cut into your work day.  At night, once you chose a proper pair of gloves, slather on your favorite hand cream or you could just use Vaseline and put them on.

The gloves will ensure that the slave stays put.  Even a single overnight session will go a long way towards healing your hands.  Keep experimenting until you find a heavy-duty moisturizer that is free of fragrance and all of the additives that contribute to drying your hard-working hands. Some of those I spoke to said that they add two further steps to their glove program. “I start my soaking my hands first to open up the cells so that they will take up the cream.” Then they add one final protection. “After I apply Vaseline I wrap my hands in saran wrap and then the gloves. This works great on feet too!” The whole purpose to get the healing below the damaged dried out upper layers of skin.

“Old School.  Raise Your Hand!”

There are always those who have a slightly different perspective on problems and their solutions, especially when it seems somewhat self-centered. One Milk House reader explained his reasoning, “When I was younger, cracked chapped hands were a symbol to wear proudly.  It showed that you worked hard, and you were a real man.  I’m still a little too old school to use anything too sissified, but I have been known to get bag balm on my hands when doctoring a cow.” From the other end of the spectrum, a reader who wears gloves and salves replied, “I don’t like cracked hands when feeding calves. The acid and detergent water get in there and that crap burns!  If I’m sissy for that, so be it!”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

You use your hands constantly.  When your skin finally cracks and chaps, it affects everything you do. Be proactive when it comes to caring for the health of your skin.  Lock that moisture in long before your hands start drying out, and you will be as comfortable at work as you are going out for a nice dinner.



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