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Kitchen Counter Chemistry or, If You Can Mix Salad Dressing, You Can Make Moisturizer

Many times, Aunt Toby is off-season for a lot of people. It’s geography, you see. Chez Siberia is in Upstate New York and usually for the rest of the US below the Mason Dixon Line, my comments about gardening, the weather, dressing warmly, etc. etc. don’t really line up with their calendars.

This year, as we are reminded by our favorite weather prognosticators winter has come to the entire country. So, today I’ve got something for everyone.

Aunt Toby figures that by this point, most of the people in the US have got whatever form of heat they use cranked up about as far as it can go (or, everyone has unearthed their sweaters, hats, mitties, and long johns and are wearing them 24/7). And it has been that way for a while (for those of us who have had the heat turned on since November, this is not news; for those folks in the South, we feel your pain, truly). The air inside your house is dry and your eyes and your lips might be feeling dry too. Don’t forget to do what you can to put humidity into the air (hang laundry on racks, put out pans of water on registers and wood stoves, etc. etc.). And don’t forget to drink plenty of water.

But you might find that you or other family members are developing something that we refer to here at Chez Siberia as ‘Winter Itch’. When we had all the little Siberians at home, all it took for the first outbreak was for us to turn up the furnace (and the forced air heat). After about a week the kids would start to scratch. Our younger daughter was in such distress that we had to get a special lotion Rx’d for her which frankly had a little bit of cortisone in it.

What is happening (and I realize this hovers into “no, duh” territory) is that the dry air is wicking the moisture out of the skin, which starts to flake and that causes the itching. The trick here is to do two things:

First: get as much moisture into the skin (both internally and externally) as possible.

Second: Put a barrier in between the moisture on the skin surface and the dry air.

Getting moisture into the skin and keeping it there can be as simple as doing one or more of the following:

Take fewer showers and the showers you take, don’t use really hot water and use as little soap as you can (or a moisturizing gel or something like that; in a pinch, you can always use hair conditioner). If you swear you stink like a stevedore in August, you can always just rinse off/wash off those areas (you notice that no one gets winter itch in their armpits, right?).

After showers and baths, don’t rub every last bit of moisture from your skin; just pat dry and slather on cream or lotion that has a good component of oils in it. Cocoa butter is good; any product that calls itself ‘body butter’ is good. In a pinch, believe me you can use really light olive oil. Mix a couple of teaspoons in a spray bottle with warm water, shake up and spritz all over and smooth on.

When you buy products, check the labels:

Any product that claims to help with dry skin should contain stuff that does the following:

Water — this should be the first ingredient on the list.

“Occlusive” – these are things that block the evaporation of the water. Common ingredients that perform this function are petrolatum, acetyl alcohol, lanolin, lecithin, mineral oil, paraffin, and stearic acid. Popular silicones that act as occlusives are dimethicone and cyclomethicone. I am not particularly fond of petrolatum, mineral oil and paraffin – these all come from the processing of petroleum. If you want to just make lotion, use something that is liquid at room temperature such as a nut or fruit oil.

“Humectant” – these are things that attract moisture from within and without and are usually combined with the ‘occlusive’. The most popular humectant is glycerin.

Now, almost everyone has a tube, tub or bottle of some sort of lotion or cream at home that when they get dry skin they can smooth on. When you have winter itch, however, these do not necessarily have enough of one of those items listed above to really produce the effect you need. Most of the time, the issue is that the ‘occlusive’ is not thick enough or there is not enough humectant. Here are a few items that people many times have at home that can improve the result:

Vitamin E and lecithin capsules: If you are taking either of these, just take one, take a needle and poke a hole in one end of it ad squeeze it into your hand. Put a glob of cream on top of that and a little bit more water and rub your hands together. Smooth that over the effected area.

Let’s say that you want to make your own and don’t want to deal with chemicals. Well, hike yourself to the local drug store and look for a small bottle of glycerin and a small bottle of liquid Vit. E. Or, if they don’t have that, ask for Vit. E capsules. If you want to get fancy, ask for Lecithin capsules too. Put a drop of glycerin (teeny) in your hand, the Vit. E and/or lecithin and as much water as you can hold in the palm of your hand and rub your hands together. If you want to make up a bottle, fill a bottle that can hold up to three ounces of water half way with water, squeeze in the Vit. E and/or lecithin and fill the rest of the way with glycerin. Close, shake up and use. This will be like oil/vinegar dressing — you’ll have to shake it up every time you use it.

If you really want to go all the way, check out your grocery store in the international foods section for rosewater or orange flower water (this is used in Greek and Eastern European cooking). You can use this instead of the water in the bottle (or substitute as much as you want for the water, up to 100 percent, though they really have a very strong fragrance so you might want to go 50/50 with water) along with the glycerin, etc. and you will have produced a very traditional hand lotion that has a lovely fragrance. You may find that you need more Vit. E. as an occlusive, but this is the basic stuff.

Let’s say you want something with more ‘staying power’ – then you will want to make a cream rather than a lotion, which means that you will want to use something as an ‘occlusive’ that is at least semi-solid at room temperatures, such as cocoa butter, coconut oil or beeswax. If you can find a beekeeper source, you can ask for beeswax cappings that still have honey in them. Honey has the added benefit in moisurizers that it is hygroscopic, so it fulfills the humectant role and the wax is the occlusive so you have natural products there. Depending on the type of beeswax you can get, the honey will have a different fragrance, so you will be getting something that will add fragrance to the hand lotion or cream you make. If you use beeswax, you will have to warm it up in order to mix it together with your other ingredients. Do this in a double boiler (beeswax melts at about 140 degrees F – it actually has quite a high flashpoint but I would take the melting process seriously and not turn on the stove and leave it there).

A basic formula for this would be:
1/4 cup beeswax
1 cup of oil (you can just use one oil, such as almond oil, a very light olive oil, coconut oil)
1/4 cup of water (or rosewater or orange flower water)

Put in the beeswax and melt first and then add the oil and stir together. Last, add the water or rosewater or orange flower water and stir together and pour out into whatever glass or ceramic container you are going to store this in (an empty small jar with a screw on lid is a good choice). The mixture will harden up and then you can use it when you need it.

So, now you have products to use on the dry skin. You can get an improved result with the following: Just before retiring for the evening, take a light warm shower and pat dry. Smooth on as much cream or lotion as you can and put on something to wear in bed. This will hold the moisturizer next to your skin for a longer period and it won’t rub off on the sheets. If you have cracked hands or feet, do the same thing and put on socks.
( Dry earth photo courtesy of Martin Knaapen)

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  1. Ian Welsh says:

    Amazing. how do you know all this?

  2. Toby Wollin says:

    I’m actually the Borg, Ian — when you’re a hive being, you have access to a lot more collective memory. 🙂

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