Can Fishing and Saltwater Make Your Hands Peel?

Hands Peeling From Salt Water and Fishing
Hands Peeling After Fishing In Saltwater

Can Salt Water Make Your Hands Peel?

Wondering if you’re the only one whose hands start to peel after contact with sea water or salt water fishing? Can salt water make your hands peel? My experience and the experience of many other anglers shows that saltwater may contribute to drying and peeling of the hands and feet. How do you fix it, we’ll get into that later in the article.

Back in 2018 and 2019, my hands would look like the ones depicted in the image above whenever I came home from surf fishing. I couldn’t seem to figure out what was causing it and it would take weeks to recover… without fishing. My hands would peel after going to the beach, being in saltwater, and especially, fishing in the saltwater.

I had started a job at an ice rink around then. Was it all the skates I was touching? Were my hands peeling because of the cold and the salt water combined? Was it the red tide or fish slime that was causing my hands to peel? I had fished for years and never had this problem before. Fast forward to 2023, I don’t really have the problem of peeling hands after fishing anymore and I’m pretty sure I know why.

Common Theories Why Our Hands Peel After Salt Water Exposure and Fishing

Like many of us, I went through a list of possibilities before coming to a conclusion as to why my hands were peeling after I went fishing. Hopefully the info below will be found helpful by many of you.

Do Red Tides Cause Your Hands and Feet To Peel?

One of the first thoughts I had was that it might be due to a recent red tide we had. Red tides occur via an algae bloom of phytoplankton and are known to flood the beach with harmful bacteria. Naturally, I thought maybe my hands were peeling because of the red tide we had. Unfortunately, that theory proved null and void as the red tide came and went, but my hands (and even feet now) continued to peel.

Can Your Feet and Hands Peel Because of Touching Fish?

This was another thought that crossed my mind. Still, it didn’t make any sense as I had handled fish in the past with no problem. My theory here was that it had something to do with the protective coat of fish slime that fish carry on them. Fish slime is known to protect fish from bacteria, but it also carries some bacteria; this might have been what was causing my hands to peel after fishing. Was it? I don’t think it was the main contributor, but I do think it could have played a role.

Is It From The Iodine in Shell Fish?

At the time, I was primarily using sand crabs for bait while surf fishing, so I was curious if my hands might be peeling because of the sand crabs. This theory made more sense as my feet would regularly make contact with sand crabs too.

Later, I learned that shell fish contain iodine which can cause inflammation and swelling. I then realized my hands would swell at times too, getting really red and even hot at times. It’s certainly possible that touching sand crabs contributed to my peeling hands but I doubt you get a very high dose from simply touching them.

Is It The Foam or Cork Fishing Rod Handle?

This was yet another theory that crossed my mind. I can’t say I looked too deeply into this one as in my opinion, it’s unlikely that this was the case.

Do My Hands Peel Because of an Allergic Reaction?

One way or another, I believe this theory has a good chance at being the cause of this problem at least for some of us. Whether it’s due to the salt in the water or something to do with shell fish, (and depending on what qualifies as an “allergic” reaction), one way or another, it could all be one big allergic reaction to something.

Will Taking Allergy Medications Prevent Your Hands From Peeling?

I tried Claritin, Zyrtec, and the Walmart knock-off brands for each of these. In my specific experience, none of that helped, but a little placebo affect never hurt anyone so have at it if you’d like.

My Hands Only Peel After Fishing In The Winter Months

I’ve heard this one quite a bit and after you read my conclusion below, it will make a lot more sense, but the main reason this happens is because when the water is cold and the air is cold, it takes longer for the water to evaporate from your hands. This means it takes longer for your hands to dry… which means extended exposure to salt water.

What Causes Your Hands to Peel After Salt Water Exposure?

After wearing gloves, taking allergy medications, using hand lotions at night and throughout the day, I slowly transitioned back into fishing without gloves, paying close attention to what led to a flare up.

I determined the reason for my hands peeling was due to a combination of a few things.

  1. Salt Water Dries Your Skin
  2. Extended Exposure to Water Causes Pruney Hands
  3. Abrasion When Hands Are Pruney Damages Skin Easily

Saltwater, Abrasion, Pruney Hands & More

So in my opinion, it all starts with salt water. Between the fact that it’s water and the fact that it contains salt, salt water is the root of the problem. If you’re like me, your hands and feet might get all shriveled and pruney when they’re exposed/submerged in water for extended periods of time.

From my research and community questioning, it seems as though some people’s hands and feet get pruney quicker and more easily than others. If you’re the type to get shriveled and pruney fingers and feet faster than the average person, you’re likely at a higher risk for peeling hands after salt water exposure during fishing.

This would then make sense that cold weather and cold water temps lead to peeling hands more often for some people because it takes longer for evaporation to occur and therefore results in prolonged saltwater exposure. And of course, abrasion when your skin is at its weakest brings it all together.

What is Keratolysis Exfoliativa?

I learned of Exfoliative Keratolysis after coming across a fellow angler who struggled with the same issue of peeling hands after fishing and kayaking. It turns out, this may be the proper diagnosis for what is happening to anglers across the world. Of all the resources out there defining this condition, wikipedia had the most accurate and understandable definition:

Keratolysis Exfoliativa (also known as “lamellar dyshidrosis”, or “recurrent palmar peeling”) is a sometimes harmless, sometimes painful skin condition that can affect the focal surface of the fingers and/or the palm or soles of the feet. It is often misdiagnosed as chronic contact dermatitis or psoriasis. It is characterized by dry skin which can be peeled off very easily and will leave reddish, tender areas. The loss of this corneal layer of the skin, which protects the underlying layers, leaves the skin more vulnerable to dryness and cracking which results in a seemingly never-ending cycle if not treated properly.

How To Treat (Keratolysis Exfoliative) Your Hands Peeling From Salt Water

The treatment for Keratolysis Exfoliative (or peeling of your hands and feet after exposure to saltwater, fishing or whatever else might cause it seems to be undefined in the medical world. The best “treatment” in my experience has been prevention. If you find yourself already stuck with the peeling hands and you don’t want to take a two week break from fishing, the only way I was able to escape the cycle was by a combination of the prevention tactics used below along with Okeefe’s Working Hands hand cream. I tried a number of standard hand lotions etc. but this was by far the most effective treatment.

How To Prevent Hands From Peeling After Salt Water Exposure and Fishing

In my experience, the best way to stop your hands from peeling after fishing or saltwater exposure is to do these three things. 1) Avoid unnecessary prolonged water exposure. 2) Pat (don’t rub) your hands dry. 3) Avoid abrasion when hands are pruney or wet.

Avoid Unnecessary Prolonged Salt Water Exposure

Most people are aware of the drying effect that saltwater has on our skin. While it’s great for acne, it’s not great for people with hands and feet that prune quickly. You see, when your hands and feet become pruney or shriveled, your skin becomes week and susceptible to tears when exposed to abrasion (as we’ll get into later. Even by simply extending your fingers when they’re extremely shriveled, certain people can cause small tears in their skin, leading to dry and peeling hands later that day or the next day.

Pat Your Hands Dry

Obviously, prolonged water exposure and pruney hands can occur any time of year. But, as mentioned earlier, regarding the common complaint that this happens to some anglers only in the winter months, cold weather and cold water temps lead to peeling hands more often for some people because it takes longer for evaporation to occur. This leads to prolonged saltwater exposure which can then shrivel your fingers and palms.

To prevent this, I recommend frequently “patting” your hands dry on a cloth rather. It’s best not to rub/wipe your hands dry if your fingers are already pruney as even this be enough abrasion to tear your skin and lead to dry and peeling skin later on.

Avoid Abrasion When Your Hands Are Pruney/Wet

Abrasion is a huge factor in all of this. Think of all the little things you do with your hands while you fish. For me, the worst of it all was if I gathered sand crabs with my hands – digging into the sand with my bare hands and sometimes nicking rocks along the way. It was even worse if I had to do this after I had already been fishing for some time and my hands had been wet for a while. For that reason, I always make sure to gather my bait prior to getting my hands wet. If you can minimize abrasion while your hands are wet, this along with keeping your hands dry will be the best way to prevent your hands from peeling.

Use Hand Cream: Okeefe’s Working Hands

As mentioned earlier, Okeefe’s Working Hands hand cream was the best option in my experience. All the other lotions and creams seemed to dry up a few minutes after application. Okeefe’s actually felt like the moisture was continuously hydrating my skin for the next 15 to 30 minutes while not feeling “wet”. It’s touch to explain, but applying that throughout the day and especially before going to bed was a big help for me.

Should You Use Fishing Gloves To Stop Your Hands From Peeling?

One of the other things I tried was using fishing gloves to stop my hands from peeling. I actually used fishing gloves for a couple years because I thought I was stuck and had no other option. If for some reason, you can’t seem to prevent your hands from peeling, and you need to use fishing gloves, get something waterproof like these fishing gloves.

While there are plenty of reasons not to use gloves while fishing, if it’s your only option please handle your fish as minimally as possible as gloves have proven to have a detrimental effect on a fish’s health when released.

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