Winter is poised to take its toll on your skin. Cold weather saps essential oils from the body, leaving skin dry and scaly and causing what dermatologists call winter itch, a common malady among seniors. If you think applying moisturizer only to your face and hands will defeat winter itch, you're merely scratching the surface.

"Your whole body, head to toe, should be moisturized," says Dr. Robyn Gmyrek, director of the Skin and Laser Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Medical Center.

Keeping skin moist and supple gets harder as we age. And those taking cholesterol-lowering drugs face a bigger hurdle, Gmyrek says. The drugs not only lower the amount of cholesterol in the blood, they also lower the amount of cholesterol in the skin. Cholesterol may be bad for the heart, but it helps keep skin from drying out.

Even those who moisturize typically treat only the parts of the body exposed to the elements. But Gmyrek says legs and back are also prone to winter itch, although some elderly people may have difficulty moisturizing those areas. "They can't always bend forward and moisturize their legs. They can't always get the back," she says. Gmyrek recommends buying a back-moisturizer applicator. These devices resemble back scratchers with pads.

Moisturizers fall into three broad categories: lotions, creams and ointments. Because many lotions come in containers with pump tops and are not greasy, they are the easiest to use and most popular. But they also are not as effective. "When you compare them to ointments and creams, they will not moisturize as well," Gmyrek says. She recommends an oily moisturizer with petrolatum -- yes, that includes humble, inexpensive petroleum jelly.

Gmyrek recommends moisturizing after a bath or shower. "Pat the skin dry, and then apply the cream moisturizer or ointment moisturizer in a small amount over your entire body and rub it in," she says. "Give it a minute to soak in, and you can dab off any residual that's there so you don't feel greasy."

As for soap, Gmyrek advises using it sparingly because it dries the skin. This is true even for soaps that have moisturizers as an ingredient.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Unless you're mud wrestling, you don't need to be lathering up like a commercial," she says. "Just by definition, if you're using a soap of any kind, you are stripping oil from your skin."