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Hair, Skin, and Nail Hacks for RA Pain

Living Well

February 11, 2022

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Hernandez & Sorokina/Stocksy United

Hernandez & Sorokina/Stocksy United

by Cheryl Crow


Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ


by Cheryl Crow


Fact Checked by:

Jennifer Chesak, MSJ


When you live with hand pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, or injury, tasks like doing your hair, nails, or makeup can be frustratingly difficult.

As an occupational therapist and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patient, I’ve learned some adaptations and tricks that make these tasks a little easier.

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Two main strategies

When I want to make grooming tasks easier on my hands, I think about how I typically do the task. For example, when I dry my hair, I usually hold the hair dryer in one hand and a hairbrush in the other.

I then look at where and when I’m feeling pain. For example, my fingers, thumbs, and wrists are usually sore after 10 minutes of drying, the pain intensified in the hand holding the hair dryer.

This is called a task or activity analysis in occupational therapy lingo.

I then debate whether one or both of the strategies below might work.

  1. Change the object you’re using. For example, I could purchase a hair dryer stand, which would take away the pain in the hand that’s holding the hair dryer. I could then alternate hands for brushing while drying. I could also purchase a lightweight dryer.
  1. Change your approach and work differently. For example, I could take rest breaks during the drying task to allow my hands to recover. I could also switch the hair dryer holding hand and the brush holding hand.

Looking at your activities this way helps you become a task detective or activity analyst in your own life. Implementing small tweaks to your daily routine can add up to great gains over time.

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Hair brushing and drying

The first thing I look at when approaching hair brushing or drying is the style and weight of my brush.

Many people with hand pain find that wide grip brushes are easier to hold than narrow ones. Additionally, lightweight brushes tend to be easier on tender joints than heavier ones. I personally prefer brushes with a gel-like texture as they are more comfortable to grasp. I also prefer flat paddle brushes versus round ones as I find them easier on my wrists.

One of the handiest tools I’ve come across is a tabletop hair dryer stand. It allows you to clamp your hair dryer into place so that you don’t have to hold it at all. You will, however, have to rotate your head in order to get all surfaces of your hair dry. These are also available in a wall mounted version if you don’t have enough room on your countertop.

If neck pain is a big issue and you’re interested in investing more money into a drying solution, you might want to look into a full stand-up “bonnet” style hair dryer. This would allow you to dry your hair without moving your head at all, which can help with a sore or stiff neck.

Another product some people with hand pain love is a dryer brush. This is a two-in-one device that looks like a wide brush but also contains a hair dryer, so you only have to hold one object.

If buying a new gadget isn’t in your budget or is not of interest, you might benefit from these simple hacks.

  • Let your hair air dry halfway or more before using a hair dryer to minimize the total amount of time you spend drying.
  • Use the lightest weight hair styling tool you have.
  • Alternate hands throughout the hair drying or styling process.
  • Take rest breaks as you style. I like to divide my hair into three sections (bottom, middle, and top) and rest in between each one.
  • Use a ponytail holder or fabric headband to stabilize your hand and forearm as you hold the hair dryer to redistribute some of the weight.

Hair styling

On bad hand pain days, I typically end up throwing my wet hair into a loose ponytail at the base of my neck and calling it a day. However, it can be helpful to have a few go-to options for hair styling so that you can be flexible depending on how you’re feeling.

It can help to use a stretchy ponytail holder and learn one-handed techniques so that you can use the hand that’s currently not hurting as much.

If your thumbs are an issue — which is often the case for osteoarthritis — you can learn how to put your hair into a ponytail without using your thumbs.

Another styling tip is to consider a haircut that eases styling altogether. Shorter styles, like bobs, minimize dry time as well as the need to style.

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Nail and skin care

Cutting nails

When it comes to your nails, the model and style of nail trimmer can make a huge difference. I personally recommend wider grip nail trimmers with extended handles.

You can also modify your existing trimmer by gluing it onto a hard surface like a piece of plastic or cardboard box. This will allow you to bypass your thumb and use larger joints and muscles to depress the nail trimmer. This is particularly helpful for osteoarthritis of the CMC joint at the base of the thumb.

Styling nails

As with hair brushes, nail polish wands with a wide grip may be more comfortable to grasp than the standard small ones. You may also benefit from a workaround by delegating this task to someone else and treating yourself to a manicure.

Moisturizing skin

Consider the benefits of a pump bottle versus a squeeze bottle for lotions and other skin care products. You may also enjoy a long-handed motion applicator to help protect sore hand joints.

Plucking eyebrows and other facial hair

Similar to nail trimmers, I find that tweezers with a wide, textured grip are easier to hold on bad hand pain days. You can also outsource this task by getting your eyebrows and other facial hair tweezed or waxed.


When it comes to makeup products, finding the right RA-friendly routine can be challenging. Due to the small nature of applicators, it can be tricky to make makeup application a painless process. While some makeup brands carry wide grip or easy-open containers, this is unfortunately not the status quo.

However, Selena Gomez, who manages joint pain due to lupus, recently debuted an accessibility-focused line of makeup called Rare Beauty that features easy-open containers for lipstick, mascara, and more.

If you swear by a certain product that has yet to join the accessibility wave, you can easily add a piece of foam to the existing handle to make the product wider and easier to grasp. You can also add a foam handle to extend the length of your makeup objects, which may make them easier to use.

If it’s hard to open your makeup containers, you may find that tying a rubber band around them or using a rubber grip jar opener can increase friction and make them easier to open.

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Coping with fatigue

When in doubt, simplify.

Having a simple grooming routine is an example of an energy conservation principle called task simplification. If you’re familiar with the spoon theory, where spoons are used as a metaphor for units of energy, this means simplifying tasks to conserve our spoons to use later on.

For some, grooming can be as simple as the occasional haircut. For others, grooming is a vital form of self-care that instills both control and confidence.

Hopefully, these tips allow you a greater sense of comfort and independence, regardless of where you fall on the grooming spectrum.

Fact checked on February 11, 2022

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About the author

Cheryl Crow

Cheryl Crow is an occupational therapist who’s lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 19 years. In 2019, Cheryl started Arthritis Life to help others thrive despite arthritis. She facilitates online courses and support groups to help people adjust to their conditions and live full and meaningful lives. Most days you can find Cheryl creating life hack videos, sharing patient stories on the Arthritis Life Podcast, or spreading the word about acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

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