Cooking to feed ourselves multiple times a day is a lot of work — and not simply because it’s now a necessary chore as we heed the call to stay home. There’s also the dirty little secret of consistent home cooking: piles and piles of dishes.
Whether you’re simply boiling instant ramen, embracing your inner Alison Roman, or tackling massive, multi-step cooking and baking projects (hello, sourdough), there’s no escaping the cleanup. And that — along with the relentless hand-washing we’re doing to stay healthy and safe — is adding up to a nation full of dry, chapped hands.
It’s a phenomenon chefs are familiar with, given that their hands regularly take a beating from heat, water, and constant movement in the kitchen. “Typically a telltale sign of a chef is a callous on your pointer finger on the hand you hold your knife with,” says Kat Turner, executive chef at Los Angeles all-day cafe Highly Likely. “We have to moisturize so those callouses don’t become barnacles. Then aside from the constant hand-washing, I tend to get a lot of small cuts and burns, so applying healing salves helps keep my hands cared for.”
I asked chefs for the products they use to keep skin soft amid the endless dish- and hand-washing — and some advice on how to find some joy in it. Here’s what the pros suggest:
Opt for heavy-duty moisturizers
Valerie Gordon of sweets shop Valerie Confections in Los Angeles is a longtime Kiehl’s devotee: “The products are generally aroma-free, and extremely reliable,” she says. For daytime, she swears by the Ultimate Strength Hand Salve. “It’s industrial,” she says, “and has a super-intense moisturizing ability.” And while she generally recommends keeping nails short and buffed like cooks in professional kitchens, she recently ordered Olive & June mani/pedi sets for herself and her daughter for a fun stay-at-home project that doubles as some much-needed hand care.
San Diego-based chef Claudette Zepeda looks to a family favorite to moisturize after washing. “My go-to for hand care is tried-and-true, old-school Nivea Creme, the one in the giant blue tub. My grandmother used to use it as face cream, and I swear when she passed at 91 she had the smoothest skin,” she says.
Traditional moisturizers aren’t the only option
Carolina Santos-Neves, executive chef at New York City’s American Bar, soothes cracked skin with pantry ingredients she already has on-hand. “After washing my hands, I’ll grab some coconut oil and go crazy with a nice intense massage,” Santos-Neves says. “And if I’m using butter for a recipe I’ll grab a little extra and use it on my hands. Hey, why not?” If her hands are “super chapped,” she turns to the medicine cabinet, adding a little Neosporin to that mix.
The gloves you wear for essential trips out of the house can also help seal moisture in. “I really love a product with beeswax,” says Turner. “When I’m working, I like to use Egyptian Magic, which is made with beeswax, olive oil, and a bunch of other crazy shit. I’ll wash my hands, put on the cream while they’re still damp, then put on my gloves to seal in the moisture.”
Chris Shepherd, chef and owner of Underbelly Hospitality and the co-founder of the Southern Smoke Foundation (which has already granted more than $600,000 to restaurant workers affected by COVID-19), has one local obsession: the homemade salt scrub at the Isle PediSpa in Houston. “I love it. I keep it in my house, and I stock it in the bathrooms of my restaurants,” he says. For those not in the Houston area, Shepherd also recommends Aesop Reverence Aromatique Hand Wash, which he also uses at home. Made with botanical extracts and finely milled pumice, it naturally exfoliates dry skin.
Think about the soap you’re using
Some soaps are more drying than others. “My trick has been to stay away from super-toxic dish soaps and use products by Meyer’s and Ecos,” says Santos-Neves.
Chef Edoardo Baldi’s holy grail dish soap is both easy on hands and a solid multi-purpose cleaner. “I use Palmolive for almost everything,” says the chef of Edo Little Bites in the Pacific Palisades, California. “It has the perfect pH balance, is very gentle on skin and readily available. I use a combination of Palmolive plus diluted bleach plus water as a disinfectant, and I even use a drop of it to wash veggies at home.”
Try to enjoy it
There are plenty of strategies you can use to take care of your hands during this stressful, scary time, but the act of washing your hands can be a way to practice a bit of self care, too.
“Handwashing for me has become a zen meditation,” says Caroline Glover, executive chef of Annette in Aurora, Colorado. “Because it is the very first thing I do when I get home or get to the restaurant — the only two places I go. It makes me pause and breathe. It is one of the most intentional acts I commit throughout the day. I have a method. And I do it every time. In a time where my days are filled with nothing normal — where there is very little similar to the day before — I find great comfort in that one routine.”
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