Monday, October 23, 2006

As the winter season gets into full gear, cold outside air and dry indoor heating make us start to scratch and scratch. This reminds me of an essay I wrote about 10 years ago for BUNK (the unpublished book).

Dry, Itchy Skin

Many, many Americans are walking around with dry itchy skin, for which they constantly seek medical attention.

Aside from those who work in sea water (like Polynesian divers or Hawaiian kayak paddlers you see on National Geographic TV shows), dry skin is entirely unnecessary, and may be the result of a strange advertising campaign aimed at the peculiar obsession with household cleanliness which Europeans imported to the U.S.

Remember that Twentieth Century culture was pervaded by efforts to sell detergent, a sulfhydryl compound of calcium carbonate (lime) which was popularized in the late 1800's as an alternative to soap (a sodium salt of organic fat). A lot of newspapers and electronic media were sold on the basis of advertising detergent, and, indeed, huge corporations developed on the backbone of clean clothes, clean floors, clean toilet bowls, and, ultimately, squeaky clean hair and skin. The cultural culmination of this obsession is the soap opera, a literary genre all its own (metaphorically with dirty intrigues by all sorts of clean-cut characters).

The detergentizing of the human body, however, is a physiologic nightmare for the skin, the largest organ of the body.

Skin is supposed to have a protective layer of sebum, an oily substance, which in turn covers layers of keratinized epithelium--dead superficial skin cells. It is a natural, virtually perfect covering that is flexible, water-proof, sun-screening, temperature-regulating, and attractively shaded. Without the oily covering, the dead cells rapidly deteriorate and flake off, exposing a live layer of quickly-reproducing epithelial cells and the supportive structures, such as blood vessels, fat, strands of muscle, pigmented cells, nerve endings, etc. These cell-layers, with nothing on top of them, will now work over-time to keep out the toxins of the external world, and will, therefore, overgrow with inflammatory cells and substances, taking on the red hue of blood, which looks bad and feels worse.

Once again a penchant for healthy cleanliness, taken too far, creates a health problem. But despite the evidence, advertising goes on and on, with bath soaps compared side by side to see which is more effective in cleaning glass.* Many of these soaps have trade names which conjure up images of nerves on end (Zest, Irish Spring), while others (Coast, Lifebuoy) recall the dried out skin of seafarers. The most ironic name in this class is Shield, which does all it can to destroy the shielding effect of the skin.

The skin of the scalp is oiler than that of the rest of the body, and the hair collects and retains this oil. Therefore, a little detergent in the form of shampoo is useful for the scalp, beard and genital areas (not under the arms, please), but "body shampoo" can be as harmful as detergent soaps. Live skin is not glass, and using a soap which leaves only squeak and no slick is a good way to end up at the doctor's.

* Indeed, the first use of Gamble's Soap was to clean up automobile windshields, a new invention of the late 1800's. A promoter named Proctor bought the patent and marketed the product as a body soap, naming it Ivory and emphasizing its purity as a sure sign that it is good for your health.
It's not.

Now for some additional information and advice:

1. Even without soap, lots of water exposure (swimming, taking long showers, ritual bathing) can dry out the skin. The hotter the water, the worse it gets.

2. Bubble baths that have real, lasting bubbles are all detergents and are terrible for skin, especially that of little kids.

3. The skin of different parts of the body have different amounts of natural oil. As a general rule, the hairier skin is oilier. Therefore, shampoo (a detergent) may be fine for your scalp but too drying for the rest of the body. "Whole body" shampoos are probably either too oily for the head or too harsh on the body. Best to use a beauty soap on the body and a plain shampoo on the hairy parts.

4. The best way to moisturize skin is to apply a bit of simple oil (baby oil, mineral oil, olive oil) all over the body immediately after bathing while the skin is wet (yes, your towel will pick up a little oil). On non-wet skin, creams or ointments work better than most lotions (which are designed to dry up quickly), but the keys are to use as frangrance-free a product as possible, with the least amount of parabens or alcohol (the drying agents).
Ugh. Itching. Don't TELL me genetics has nothing to do with it.
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