Soothing winter's itch

I've got an itch. A terrible itch. It's not a contagious itch nor one souvenired from exotic climes. It's an unfair itch. It's stopping me doing what I love most at the only time of year I can really enjoy it. And it's making me scratch like a monkey.

It's what in medical terminology is called ''winter itch'' and, according to the skincare professionals, a lot of blokes suffer from it. We're a sensitive lot, after all.

Winter itch is a low-grade, barely raised rash; a type of dermatitis - nothing dramatic, nothing glamorous but as regular as clockwork come June or July. The GP says there's not much they can do about it.  

The best treatment? ''Turn down the heat in the shower. Stop the long baths,'' says Alan Oppenheim of Ego Pharmaceuticals. ''It will not only be good for climate change, it will save your skin.''  Great. The one time of year when you want to wallow in a hot bath and enjoy steamy showers you can't. 

It was probably 20 years ago that I first noticed it. Living in a freezing cold flat in north London, with clingfilm on the windows to keep out the draughts, I found my shoulders and back covered in a rash that wouldn't shift. A pharmacist reckoned I should change shampoo to something mild - so I started using Johnson's Baby. It smelt nice and helped win the heart of my beloved who assumed (quite rightly) I was a big softie. But it made little difference to the rash. I tried a different washing powder but no change there either. The only thing that fixed it was the arrival of the glorious English summer.

Every winter since it's been pretty much the same story - when the nights start drawing in, my skin starts giving my hell. Then I ask Mrs Manscaping (who still melts at the smell of baby shampoo) if she's changed the detergent, and she reminds me that it's winter. It doesn't seem to be related to heating - it's just as bad with none as with ducted heating or radiators or a proper fire. It's not related to woolly jumpers or to an increased intake of hot chocolate or port.

Master Manscaping (aged nine) has got it too and I'm fully expecting the littlest Manscaper (three) to develop it next winter. I don't want to have to bypass the steam room at the gym I've just handed so much money over to, so we've been experimenting with various lotions and potions. Some of them proved worse than the itch itself but to my surprise several eased the rash and soothed the skin - helping with dried out skin and allowing you to still wash, which is a relief to all.

According to the skin experts, the most important thing is to hydrate the skin. Ego QV Bath Oil ($10.95 for 250ml) is the only thing allowing me to take baths at the moment. It's oily but disperses into the water like milk. Mr Oppenheim says it is great for people who have very dry skin and those who suffer from dry dermatological conditions. But then I go to Ego's competitor for the next step. After soaking for a bit, I rub Cetaphil Skin Restoring Body Wash ($19.99 for 250ml) on the itchy bits, let it absorb a bit, then ease back down into the water. It's proving a winning combination. The Cetaphil Restoraderm range is meant for eczema sufferers.

Caroline's All-Purpose Wash ($31.95) is also meant for eczema sufferers - and other ''compromised'' skin conditions such as grazes, chicken pox, chapped lips and sunburn. Caroline Monet, its founder (yes, there really is a ''Caroline''), says her customers report using it for a variety of purposes: as an alternative to shampoos, soaps, conditioners, shaving creams and ''even some unhappy pets with skin conditions were a lot happier after using the wash.''


It is a luxury alternative to soap and it is soap that should never be used on winter skin as it is too harsh, according to Nina Wines, a Sydney dermatologist who has also launched a men's range. ''Moisturise your body within three minutes of showering as the cells are macerated after showering and will absorb moisture,'' says Wines, co-founder of Skinn. ''If your skin is especially dry use an ointment-based moisturiser.''  

The skincare companies are also cottoning on to how sensitive we are. Nivea, the worldwide No. 1 brand in men's skincare, has just launched a Sensitive range that is wallet friendly ($7.99 for a face wash, $11.26 for a moisturiser). Phyt'ssima is a high-end, salon-only nourishing range from Phyt's for reactive, irritated and sensitive skin types with a healing formulation based on argan and hemp oils, rich in fatty acids. I tried the Phyt-ssima Extreme Nutritive Face Cream ($99): the dry skin of my neck drank it up.

Another product fit for those with a bit of disposable income is Manage Your Skin's Cooling Aloe Vera Gel (it's $125). It instantly soothes itchy skin.

Antipodes Saviour Skin Balm is another conditioning lotion which launched last month in Myer and David Jones for $48 a tin. And Subtle Energies, an Australian spa and online line, offers a ''natural'' brand based on the Ayurveda aromatherapy philosophy. Their range contains essential oils, which might be an issue for sensitive types, but the Gul Henna and Carrot Seed Moisturiser ($53.95) proved calming and hydrating, though not as delicious as the name might suggest.  

Do you suffer winter itch or any other skin condition, and have you found a cream or oil that soothes it?