Sunday, January 27, 2019

Keeping Your Musician's Hands Healthy in Winter

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,Ltd.
and Ivana Truong

If you're a musician and you live in a climate that experiences a cold and dry winter, then you know the constant fight to keep your hands and fingers from drying out, cracking, and becoming painfully stiff.
Musician's Hand Salve from Joshua Tree Skincare
I (Andy) feel eminently qualified to discuss this very subject. Because:
1) I play the violin, viola, and several other instruments.
2) My work as a violin maker/restorer causes constant roughening of my hands from tools, wood, files, and sandpaper.
3) I like to do indoor rock wall climbing as well as mountain biking all of the year.
4) I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As I'm writing this, the outside air temperature (without any windchill included) is about -5F (-20.5C)
5) I live in a classic Craftsman style modified bungalow house built in 1939. That means a tiny kitchen with NO DISHWASHER. Actually, if you could see me writing this, I'd say "You're looking at the dishwasher!"
In short, my hands and fingers take a beating. Read on for a few tips I've figured out to keep my hands and fingers in (reasonably) good shape.

First, if you're a musician, don't follow my example into the world of rock climbing. IT'S. NOT. GOOD. FOR. YOUR. HANDS! There's far too great a chance of injury. Just don't do it.

Also, I'm not a physician or health care adviser. ALWAYS check out any kind of hand therapy with your healthcare provider first.

Trigger warning: I've included pictures of my hands and fingertips in various states of health in this post. Some of the pictures of cracked fingertips are a bit gross.

So what can you do to keep your hands and fingertips healthy? The answer starts long before you encounter a problem.

Some things are simple, such as getting a good pair of gloves or mittens and wearing them when you're out in cold weather. If you earn your living with your hands, don't skimp on the cost of some gloves. Gloves or mittens with down or Thinsulate insulation seem to work best.
'Dakine' gloves with Thinsulate keep my hands toasty down to about -5F.
Then I switch to Thinsulate mittens with additional liners

It's no secret that Winter comes around every year. And if you put in a long practice session, you'll see the wear and tear on your fingertips. The best time to start taking care of your hands and fingertips? BEFORE Winter settles in and BEFORE a long practice session. But don't worry, you can start some or all of this handcare routine today and still get benefits, and I have practical advice for remedial actions too.
Andy's left hand. Those fingers are a mess!
Most of my hand and fingertip care takes place at night. You certainly can't goop up your hands with lotions and salve while you're trying to play an instrument and/or work. You don't want the ingredients in these lotions on your strings or on your instrument.

I wish that any one product was enough to keep my hands healthy, but I haven't found it yet. I have found a few products that work well in combination.
Joshua Tree Musician's Salve
I start with Musicians Salve from Joshua Tree Skincare. This stuff works great by itself; it's organic with several great healing herbs, oils, and gums; and it smells great. For most of the year, this is all I need.

If you can't wait for Musician's Salve from Joshua Tree Skincare (it's hard to find anywhere but online) Weleda Skin Food is an almost as good alternative that's usually available at Target and other retailers. 

Getting better!

In deep Winter, or if I'm playing a lot of music, or climbing a lot, or all of the above, my hands will be dry with cracked fingertips even after regularly using Musician's Salve. Next up in my armament is some O'Keefe's for Working Hands. O'Keefe's isn't organic, but it sure works great! And they've got a "Money Back Guarantee"! It's also pretty expensive. Luckily, CVS (and I'm sure a few other similar stores) have formulations that are almost identical at a lower cost.

BLADE from CVS- a formulation similar to O'Keefe's
So you slather on the Joshua Tree Musician's Salve and some O'Keefe's before you go to bed and you're GOOD, right? Ha! It's going to be -26F (-32C) later this week!

Try this next-
Let the Musician's Salve and O'Keefe's soak into your skin (10 to 30 minutes) and then use some standard hand lotion to seal all the goodness in. I've found that Trader Joe's Moisturizing Cream works best.
Lightweight Far Infrared Gloves

AND THEN seal it all in with some light gloves. I like Far Infrared Gloves for their added effect of possibly helping your hands' muscles and nerves. But any light cotton or polypropylene gloves will do the trick. You can wear gloves all night or keep them on for at least a few hours. Not sexy? Yeah, I know. But rough, cracked, and bleeding hands aren't sexy either.

So what do you do if you've followed this routine and you still develop cracks in your hands or fingertips right before a big gig or rehearsal? Did you know a form of superglue was developed for Army medics to carry in Vietnam to close wounds quickly?  While you might find your local, friendly luthier reaching for super glue or some similar cyanoacrylate glue to close up a skin crack, I don't recommend it. Why? Well, it's not approved for use on human skin. You know, sterility and toxicity concerns, that kind of stuff. BUT Dermabond Skin Adhesive is developed and approved for use on people's skin. In fact, it's often used instead of sutures in emergency rooms. (BUT I'm NOT saying you should glue yourself up with Dermabond instead of going to the emergency room if you have a big, bleeding wound!) Try putting a small amount of Dermabond on the cracks on your fingertips or hands and push the skin together. It works great in a pinch! Pun intended. But just like superglue, be careful not to glue your fingers together.

Anything else you can do to keep your hands healthy?

Alcohol (the drinking kind)- Surprisingly, drinking alcohol negatively affects the health of your skin all over- face, hands, lips, and everywhere else. Try cutting down on your alcohol consumption. Your skin will thank you.

Humidity!- Just as your instrument needs humidity in the wintertime to stay healthy and not crack, so does your skin. Try running a humidifier to humidify your entire home.  If not your whole home, try humidifying your bedroom and practice room with room humidifiers. You and your instrument will be happiest with wintertime humidity in the range of 35% to 60%. Here's a great article on home humidity- A Guide to Managing (And Understanding the Importance Of) Indoor Humidity Levels

Your instrument's adjustment- Having your bridge too high will necessitate pushing the strings down onto the fingerboard harder and more string tension pushing against your fingertips. Try having your luthier lower your bridge. But not too low or you'll get buzzing. Also, try easing up on how much you push down on the strings. Relax that left hand!

Dishwashing- I personally hate the feel of rubber gloves, but they will help tremendously when you have to wash dishes by hand. For me, living in a 1930s house, that's the only way the dishes get done. Go the rubber gloves route if you're the evening's appointed dishwasher.

We don't sell any of the above-mentioned products at Fein Violins or, but go ahead and mention this blog if you decide to purchase a product. Especially if you get some of the Musician's Salve from Joshua Tree Skin Care. They're really nice folks!

I hope this helps! Please let me know if any of this works or if you have some other suggestions.

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