Garden hands — How to get your hands clean (really clean!) after gardening

I love hands. I always notice them and appreciate them — from sweet, smooth infant hands to old, wrinkled hands that show how much they’ve worked over the years. I strive for brightly clean hands with smartly trimmed nails and soft skin. But I’m a gardener — and cook and crafter and homemaker and DIY project maker. Embedded dirt, dull fingernails, calluses, and cracked skin are par for the daily course. So it seems a losing battle. Especially since I cannot bring myself to wear gardening (or work) gloves.

hands digging in garden soil surrounded by green plants

Oh, I promise myself that I’ll wear gloves. I buy new garden gloves and leave them where they can’t be ignored. I even put them on. For about three minutes. Once I’m digging in the dirt, though, off they come. I can’t quite pull weeds or plant as well with gloves on. To be honest, I also love the feel of garden soil.

Tattered hands aside, barehanded digging has its perks. Beyond feeling lovely, scientists think that microbes in soil (Mycobacterium vaccae, to be exact) may stimulate serotonin production, making it an antidepressant of sorts. (Most gardeners can attest to that!) Researchers are studying dirt’s ability to improve cognitive function and symptoms of anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, and fibromyalgia, too. We also know that getting your hands dirty in the garden may help improve your gut microbiome, improving your immune system and cutting your risk of illness and allergies. A recent study found that direct exposure of hands to natural soil and plant-based gardening materials increased the diversity of microbes in the body, even after washing up. 

So, unless I’m working in the roses or with other potentially painful plants, I’m barehanded in the garden. I have experimented, though, with ways to get garden hands sparkling clean. I’ve tried everything over the years (including bleach, which I strongly do not recommend!). Here are some ways to get garden hands clean that work well for me:

My favorite way to clean garden hands

You’ll need:

  • A nail brush
  • Soap
  • Baking soda
  • Lemon juice (hydrogen peroxide can be substituted for the lemon juice) 
  • Hand lotion
hands washing under splashing water


  1. Wash your hands well with soap and warm water. Use a nail brush – not just on your nails but all over your hands. 
  2. Rinse your hands.
  3. Shake some baking soda into your wet hands and rub them together, loosening the dirt in all those little crevices. 
  4. Pour on some lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide. Rub your hands together for about a minute.
  5. Rinse with warm water. 
  6. Dry well.
  7. Apply your favorite hand lotion. 

Other ingredients for removing stubborn stains on garden hands:

  • A paste of oatmeal and milk. This is soothing, though not quite as clarifying/cleansing as the lemon juice.
  • Sugar, combined with enough olive or coconut oil to make it spreadable. Use this sugar scrub on dry hands, then wash well with soap and water. You can add baking soda, too, to make this mix even more abrasive, if you like.
  • Dry laundry soap. Dip your hands in your natural, dry laundry soap and rub them. Rinse well. I noticed when I made my own laundry soap (and mixed it by hand) that my hands were clean and soft afterwards!
  • Dry milk powder, dried lavender, and baking soda. Mix equal parts and rub into wet hands, then rinse.
  • Toothpaste. Simply rub the paste into your hands, working it well into the cracks and crevices. Wash well with soap and water.
  • Denture tablet. I haven’t tried this one, but some gardeners recommend soaking your hands in warm water in which you’ve dissolved a denture tablet. Other suggest crumbling the tablet directly on your hands and rubbing it in. 
  • Pumice stone. With a gentle touch, rub it on callused areas, then rinse. 
clean, manicured hands with small white flowers between their fingers

Finishing touches

To finish off the cleaning, I’ll dig my fingernails into a cut lemon, and wiggle them in there a minute or two. Wash with soap and water afterwards.

Always apply lotion after cleaning your garden hands. For a real treat, massage them with warm oil now and then to help soften them. Or try a hand mask.

Of course, your finishing touch may be a manicure, complete with pretty polish. I can’t keep polish on my nails for more than half an hour, but I will admire your manicure!

Preventative Measures

There are a few things you can do to help minimize the mess you might make of your hands gardening without gloves:

  • Dig your fingernails in soap before heading out. This will line them and prevent them from filing up with soil.
  • Rub your hands with hand cream or oil to give them a protective layer before gardening. (I wonder, though, if this might also protect you from picking up maximum amounts of those beneficial microbes?) I sometimes do just my cuticles, if they’re getting tender or shabby.
  • Keep your nails on the short side. Shorter nails are less likely to become ragged, and they’re easier to clean. 

How do you get your garden hands clean? What’s your tried-and-true method? Do you have a natural hand lotion or cream to recommend?

You might also enjoy:

Outdoor watering dos and don’ts

Deadheading flowers — Why, when, and how to deadhead

How to clean a bird bath — and keep it clean

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