On Resolving the “Dry Hands” Problem

As we age, the natural oils in our hands tend to dry up, skin elasticity decreases, and fingertip ridges broaden and become less prominent, all of which increase the chances that we will need some sort of augmentation to get the “grip” we once had. This can be a significant problem for the mystery entertainer, as the need to manipulate billets, envelopes, book pages, cards of various types, etc. is an important element of numerous clandestine methodologies.

Although many people hold (and enthusiastically disseminate) strong opinions on the worths of various commercial and home-brew products, the truth of the matter is that there is no single “ideal” solution. Personal skin chemistries differ, and what works for one person may not be the optimal formulation for another. So take all such recommendations with a grain of salt: the most effective approach is simply to experiment with a variety of products until finding the one that works best for you.

In general, glycerol (commonly called “glycerin” or “glycerine” in ingredient listings) is the “magic” constituent; most people find products based on glycerol to be the preferred solutions. This is not surprising, as glycerol is both an excellent emollient and humectant, two properties important to the desired goal. Further, it is a highly viscous liquid, thus easily carried and applied.

Corn Huskers LotionThe product that I have personally found to be the most effective is Corn Huskers® Lotion, comprised (in descending order of concentration) of water, glycerin, SD alcohol 40, sodium calcium alginate, oleyl sarcosine, methylparaben, guar gum, triethanolamine, calcium sulfate, fragrance, calcium chloride, fumaric acid, and boric acid. It is inexpensive, widely available, and — unlike many hand moisturizing products — contains no oils (which can stain cards, books, etc.). I first learned of it from a company making optoelectronic fingerprinting equipment (the lotion’s oil-free nature allows for good ridge definition in dry hands, without leaving oily residue on the optics). 60ml leakproof Nalgene bottleAnd though I still try out other recommended products on occasion, I have (thus far) invariably returned to this one.

I repackage it in a leakproof 60ml (2 oz) Nalgene HDPE bottle (seen at right), for ease of transportation and application (and, in these times of heightened airline security, carry-on convenience).

Again, though, the fact that this is the optimal solution for me does not mean that it will be ideal for you.

Other well-regarded hand moisturizing products that are particularly worth including in your own personal search include Working Hands Creme, Mane ‘n Tail Hoofmaker, Bag Balm, Norwegian Formula® Hand Cream, TwinLAB Na-PCA,, Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture, and Porter’s Lotion.

Chamberlain Golden Touch Lotion, a product favoured by many past playing-card-handling luminaries (Dai Vernon, Frank Garcia, and Ed Marlo among them), is often relabelled and sold for greatly inflated prices by magic shops. The inexpensive original is still available, though it can be difficult to find a local retailer that carries it. Unfortunately, being a low-viscosity liquid, it is somewhat inconvenient to carry around with you, and apply. Most find that it requires more frequent reapplication than other products. And some dislike the rather strong smell.

Other possible solutions include Sortkwik, Papercreme® (sold in magic shops as “[Michael] Skinner’s Edge Creme”), BIC Fingertip Moistener, and similar finger-moistening products intended for paper handling (though I find that these impart an overly “sticky” feel).

You will also find recommendations for various “personal lubricants”, notably Vagisil® Intimate Moisturizer, perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the glycerol-based formulas; another such offering is Astroglide.     «« Note: Do not confuse Vagisil Moisturizer with Vagisil Crème, whose principal active ingredient is Benzocaine, a local anesthetic that numbs the skin (but which may offer topical relief to anyone actually allergic to playing cards). »»

Finally, a few words about a radically different approach promoted by some: the use of one or another brand of liquid chalk, an anti-slip product marketed primarily to rock climbers, but also to weightlifters, gymnasts, and pole dancers. As the principal function of chalk is the rapid dissemination of perspiration, it is unclear how useful this might be for age-related skin issues (see first paragraph, above), but it’s included here to be as comprehensive as possible. In any case, I find it somewhat awkward and messy to use, and prone to leaving a residue. That said, and as emphasized above, what works for one person may not be the best approach for another.

Although the products mentioned in this essay are of North American origin, the Internet has greatly facilitated their worldwide availability. If, however, you prefer to experiment with locally produced solutions, remember that you are most likely to find success with products that consist primarily (aside from water) of glycerol.

… Doug Dyment