One of the things I always look at when I meet a gardener is their hands. I expect signs of hard work, the odd nick from a thorn, the thickened, even calloused skin that comes from wielding a trowel, fork or spade repeatedly, and certainly traces of dirt under their fingernails.
Much as I admired Mish Stacey, competitor on last year's Big Allotment Challenge, I did wonder how they managed to do the heavier tasks with such long, manicured nails. I almost gave a manicurist a heart attack once by telling her that I was off to turn my compost heap as soon as she'd finished varnishing my nails (wearing gloves, of course).
And yet it's no badge of honour to have hands so sore and cracked by the wet and cold that you can't get on with the winter pruning. I suffer from weather-related eczema on my knuckles (although this year it has gravitated towards the skin between my fingers, no idea why) and sometimes my face: wearing gloves whenever I am outside from roughly October to March helps, as does keeping my skin from getting dry. Here are some products I've found that help keep my hands and face soft and supple: most of them can also be slapped on your lips/face/anywhere else that's a bit dry (save the puns, people!)
O'Keefe's Working Hands, £6.29 for 95g
This stuff is magic - it sinks into the skin in moments, is not at all greasy (you can put on your gardening gloves straight away), yet it moisturises hands beautifully and stops cracked, sore skin. You can buy it in various garden centres, and it's made by the same company as Gorilla Glue, and there's a blue-packaged version for feet - what's not to like?
Coconut oil is being touted everywhere as a wonder food (check out this delightfully sweary nutrition blog for an alternative take), it is great for your skin. For a really intensive treatment, slaver your hands in it while you're watching a film and let it sink in. It's also good for use on children with dry skin on their hands, as it doesn't matter if they lick it off! Downside: my daugher can't stand the smell of it...
Burt's Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream, £5.99 for 15g
This one's thick and grainy but does a great job on dry skin around nails. It smells bracingly of lemons. I use it on lips, dry elbows and so on, and it's small enough to fit in your pocket, although it can be tricky to prize the lid off. Like all Burt's Bees products, it's made of beeswax.
Waitrose Baby Bottom Butter, £3.09 for 125ml
This isn't a new discovery, really: women have already found that the stuff they've bought for their baby's bum is actually great on their faces but it also makes a good intensive hand cream. If you can't get hold of coconut oil, this is a good alternative.
Moa balm, £4.99 for 15ml
This is good for spot application on dry skin patches - I also use it on my lips. It is made of natural ingredients - you can even make a hot drink for a sore throat with it - so it's also ideal for soothing chapped lips of children with a tendency to lick their lips.
EcoHydra alcohol free hand sanitiser, £2.49 for 50ml
A hand sanitiser is useful down the allotment for trips to the compost toilet, but the alochol-based ones suck all the moisture out of the skin. This one is scentless and sinks into the skin in seconds, while stile doing its job of killing germs. I still don't like using this much, but it's a useful backup, especially if you have kids that love to put their fingers, well, everywhere.
Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen Stick SPF 50, £14.69 for 15.6ml
Throw one of these into your tool bag when you go down the allotment - it's easier to apply than sloppy lotion and will keep you protected for hours, even when you get all sweaty turning the compost heap. Even in winter, if you're outside for hours on a sunny day, you can come back glowing from sunburn rather than your exertions. Don't forget the triangle of skin on your lower back that's often exposed when you're bending down to water or weed and your shirt rides up.