Old Man Winter can be a nasty foe, especially when it comes to your skin.
And some of the very tricks people use to warm up when the mercury dips below freezing -- as it has recently -- could turn skin that's simply dry into an itchy, flaky nuisance that takes more than a good moisturizer to cure.
"It can go beyond dry skin," says Dr. Lee Bittenbender, a Lawrence dermatologist. "It may be just dry skin, and then it may be dry, itchy skin, and then it may be dry, itchy skin that is becoming red and inflamed or eczematous. When it gets to that point, then usually they would need to see a dermatologist to see if they should have a prescription medication."
Such situations can be exacerbated by scratching, which may lead to oozing and even infection.
"If somebody scratches enough," Bittenbender says, "you can get breaks in the skin, excoriations, open sores."
The good news is, most people can avoid such unpleasant consequences by taking special care of their skin during winter, when the humidity Kansans curse all summer goes on holiday and homeowners crank up the heat in their air ducts and their showers.
Not surprisingly, Bittenbender's patient load spikes during the winter months, and Lawrence spas and beauty salons are bombarded with patrons scheduling moisture-rich body wraps and wondering what products will best quench their thirsty epidermis.
Though luxurious treatments -- such as Lada Salon and Day Spa's Aqua Polish, which uses Dead Sea salt to exfoliate and rehydrate skin -- provide temporary remedies, the best antidotes come in capsules of common sense that can be swallowed daily -- without an extra set of hands.
Hydrate from the inside
"A really big factor for many people aggravating dry skin is bathing habits," Bittenbender says. "The more often a person bathes, the hotter the water, the longer they're in the water, the more soap they use, the drier the skin's going to be."
He recommends shortening showers, avoiding the temptation to use scalding water, limiting showers to once a day and only using soap in essential areas -- like under arms and in the groin region. He also suggests applying lotion or body oil after bathing, while skin is still damp.
"What that does is leave a thin layer of oil on the skin and helps seal in some moisture," Bittenbender says.
Babette Crowder, a makeup artist who owns Babette, a cosmetics boutique at 924 1/2 Mass., says preceding a facial moisturizing regimen with an exfoliating scrub to remove dead skin is essential. A cheap alternative to a salon-brand facial scrub is sugar mixed with a little water, she says.
"That will help exfoliate the top layer of skin and make your moisturizer penetrate quickly and more effectively," she says. "The good thing about sugar is it's really gentle. There's nothing harsh added to it. It kind of acts as a humectant."
Crowder's other tips for keeping skin's dew point high include running a humidifier in the home, applying a deep moisturizing mask once or twice a week, bundling up to shield skin from the elements and drinking water.
Those steamy mocha lattes and herbal teas people drink to warm themselves when it's cold outside contain gads of caffeine, a dehydrating agent.
Crowder's rule of thumb is "one glass of water for every cup of coffee (or tea) to try to hydrate your skin from the inside."
The spa treatment
Dry skin ages faster than skin that contains natural oils or skin that has been hydrated, says Pat Risley, an aesthetician at Images Salon and Day Spa, 511 W. Ninth St.
"The winter is always harder on the skin than the summer because the skin actually tightens up and closes down," Risley says. "So that means the oils that we produce, the waters that we produce don't get to the surface as quickly, or when they do get to the surface, they're taken away very rapidly."
She recommends using lotions and soaps that contain glycerin or shea butter and, especially on the face, products created for your particular skin type. She also says investing in a salon or spa treatment this time of year can be a good start to a personal moisturizing program. Risley offers a body polish using salts that exfoliate dead skin and then rehydrates using body creams or oils and massage techniques.
At Lada Salon and Spa, 4931 W. Sixth St., owner Cherina Chapman tailors lotions to individuals based on a questionnaire developed by Aveda brand beauty products.
"We start with a base and add (essential) oils to it," she says. "If you have extremely dry skin, we can add a dry-skin remedy."
She also suggests occasional facials to reveal radiant skin and hydrating masks to replenish moisture. The spa performs a body polish similar to the Images version as well as a rosemary mint wrap that exfoliates and rehydrates, but also stimulates the body with mint.
"I would say that for your full body, you could do that maybe once a season to recleanse your body, get all the surface cells off," Chapman says. "For your face, I would say that should definitely be every four to six weeks to get the benefits of facials.
"European women treat their skin like they treat their hair. They go for facials every four to six weeks, and we go get our hair cut every four to six weeks."
As far as Bittenbender's concerned, basics like changing bathing habits, drinking water and using moisturizers are enough to keep our largest organ healthy and to give Old Man Winter a good fight.
"If people use some common sense," he says, "there are a number of things that can be done that aren't terribly expensive but can sure make life a lot more bearable in this cold weather."