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Battling the “Winter Drys” With Do-It-Yourself Strategies

December 12, 2012

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Flaky skin, peeling lips, flyaway hair, cracked fingertips, crumbling fingernails, bloody noses, dry eyes.

If you suffer from any of those winter conditions, you probably live in the frozen north. Maybe (like me) you also heat your home with wood.

Fortunately, most of us can manage these conditions with cheap, safe, and readily available household ingredients.

Moisturize from the outside; then keep that moisture in.

First, forget the idea that drinking plenty of water will keep your skin (eyes, nasal passages, nails) moist and your hair well-behaved.

Dermatologists say that while drinking water is important for overall health, as far as moisturizing skin, hair, and nails are concerned, you need to add winter moisture from the outside and prevent it from escaping into the drier surrounding air.

Humidifying dry indoor air helps provide that indoor moisture. It's especially important if you suffer bloody noses and lots of respiratory infections. You could run an electric humidifier, but passive solutions may do the trick for you. We maintain a lot of well-watered houseplants that transpire water into the indoor air. We keep steamers going on each of our stoves that pump moisture into the air whenever the stove is running.

Hanging your laundry on bars indoors is another great strategy. It doesn’t take much longer to dry near the woodstove than it would in an electric dryer, and while it dries, your laundry humidifies the air around it.

Everyone knows about moisturizing dry, flaky skin. You could use a commercial moisturizer, or simply apply a thin coat of olive oil immediately after showering or bathing.

Dermatologists also suggest taking shorter baths or showers in warm (not hot) water. Use a mild glycerin-based soap. And stay away from hair or skin-care products that contain any forms of alcohol, which are drying agents.

If you have itchy skin, try a soothing oatmeal bath

To tame flyaway hair, try a weekly deep-conditioning. For a rich conditioning treatment that you’d pay $30 to $100 for at a salon, mix a couple of tablespoons of olive, coconut, or castor oil with ½ cup of full-fat mayonnaise (alternatively: a ripe, mashed avocado), and massage into your hair and scalp. Then wrap your hair in a large plastic grocery bag, and top it off with a warm, dry towel for about 30 minutes. Finally, wash and rinse as usual. You may need to wash it twice, to remove the oil.

To make a light and moisturizing leave-in conditioner, mix two parts water, one part witch hazel, two parts vegetable glycerin (a natural moisturizer available ponline or in health-natural-food stores) and a tablespoon of olive or other cooking oil per cup of liquid in a spray bottle. If you have aloe vera gel on hand, add one part of that to the mixture. A few drops of essential oil will give you a scented product. Spritz on wet or dry hair before styling.

To prevent cracked lips, use a lip balm and apply it often. It’s inexpensive and easy to make your own. If you make a big batch that's a bit heavier on the olive oil, you can use your homemade balm for hands, fingernails, facial moisturizer, and (just a dab) hair conditioner, too.

To prevent brittle nails and ragged cuticles, use your homemade balm or a commercial conditioning agent after bathing or doing dishes. Some dermatologists suggest coating hands and nails with Vaseline or another moisturizing product and wearing cotton gloves overnight to treat dry nails and cuticles.

If you polish your nails, find an acetone-free polish remover, as acetone is a serious drying agent.

And make sure to wear gloves or mittens when you go outside, to prevent the dry winter air from drawing moisture from your skin and nails.

If you suffer from dry (scratchy, itchy) eyes, try laying a warm, moist washcloth over your closed lids for a few minutes each day.

This simple, highly effective treatment (recommended by my eye doctor when I complained that I had to pry my eyelids from my dry eyes every winter morning) helps liquefy the lubricating oil in glands located along the eyelids. It may take a few days, but if you use the compresses faithfully, you should experience relief.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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