The Best of the Balms
Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch.
''Kevin, stop that!'' Kevin looks up at you with a frown. Telling him to stop scratching his dry, chapped little arms isn't much help. What do you expect him to do? his frown seems to ask.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to soothe Kevin's chapped skin--and a dozen more things you can do to keep it from recurring.

First, it helps to understand that water is what keeps the outer skin layer soft. Chapped skin is a result of dehydration. It frequently runs in families and is most common during the late fall and winter months in northern states, although any child can get it anytime, no matter where he happens to be.



When to See the Doctor
If your child is itchy over a wide area of his body, or if his skin is cracking, seek professional help, says Rodney S. W. Basler, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Bacteria can invade the skin through such cracks and cause infections.

Fortunately, there are a number of things a parent can do. When some part of your child's skin is rough, red, itchy and scaly, try these expert remedies.


Apply bath oil directly to the skin. ''Skin hydrates from the inside out, so apply a good bath oil directly onto your child's skin after bathing,'' says Rodney S. W. Basler, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The oil puts a barrier on the skin to keep moisture from evaporating into the ozone.

''Use a good bath oil like Alpha-Keri,' ' says Dr. Basler. ''Apply it to your child's skin while he's still damp, to lock in moisture.'' But he advises against baby oil, because that just sits on the skin rather than being dispersed into the skin. ( Bath oils have ingredients that act as dispersants to make sure oil gets into the top skin layer.)

Smear it. ''If your child drools in his sleep, the skin around his mouth may get chapped,'' says Dr. Basler. Use petroleum jelly or zinc oxide (which comes in an ointment) just in the mouth area to protect the skin from chapping. Apply it right after his bath and before bed.

Start the moisturizer habit. ''Teach your child to use a light, unscented moisturizing lotion whenever she washes her hands,'' says Dr. Basler. ''She can apply the moisturizer anywhere her skin tends to get dry,'' Keep a squirt bottle handy on the sink--right beside the soap.

Leave the desert. A room humidifier is a must, says Dr. Basler. Ask your pharmacist for advice on models, then buy the best you can afford and place it in the room where your child spends most of his home time. It will not only help relieve his dry, chapped skin, but will help prevent any recurrence as well.

Preventive Care

Play dirty. ''Teach your child to take a five-minute shower or a short bath,'' suggests Jane S. Wada, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice in Montrose, California. ''Twice a week or every other night is enough for young kids. Older children who are more active can supplement their baths and showers with sponge baths to clean the essential areas.''

Soft-soap it. ''Don't let your child wash her face with a harsh soap that strips oil from her skin,'' says Dr. Basler. ''Cleansing bars like Dove are the best. Deodorant soaps are the worst.''

Spot clean the pertinent parts. ''If your tiny baby's skin is dry, don't use soap when bathing her,'' says Dr. Wada. With a newborn's skin, all you really need to do is spot-clean the folds--particularly around the knees, neck and diaper area.

Skip the powder. Avoid following a bath with either talc or powder, says Dr. Basler. Both can dry the skin.

Rinse well. ''Be sure your kids rinse their mouths well if they're using a fluoride toothpaste,' ' says Dr. Basler. Fluoride toothpaste is a known irritant to skin. If a smear of toothpaste dries on your child's chin, or he drools during sleep, the toothpaste residue may irritate the chin and cause chapping.

Banish bubbles. Avoid bubble baths if your child tends to chap easily, says Dr. Wada. ''Bubbles irritate the skin.''

Pat-a-cake. Always pat your child dry, and teach her to do the same, suggests Dr. Wada. Rubbing with a towel can chafe the skin and set the stage for chapping.

Dress your child in soft clothes. ''Irritating clothing contributes to chapping, especially when it's made of coarse fibers like wool,'' says Dr. Basler. Be especially aware that denim has a tendency to chafe the skin, particularly when it gets wet.

Choose mild detergent. Some very strong detergent soaps--particularly those with additives--cause chapping, says Dr. Basler. After all, the word ''detergent' ' means ''to take out oil.'' Avoid using strong detergents on your child's clothing until the chapped areas have cleared up. Try Dreft or Ivory Snow instead. The detergent residues on your child's freshly laundered clothes are just as likely to take out oil as the detergent in your washer.

Toss out dryer sheets. The residue from dryer sheets impregnated with fabric softener can also cause chapped skin, says Dr. Basler. It stays on the clothes and may leach moisture out of your child's skin. Instead of using sheets, switch to a liquid softener, he suggests. Or try one that's combined with your detergent.

Go from pool to shower. Children can get chapped skin just from getting out of a swimming pool and toweling down, says Paul Rehder, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist in private practice in Oxnard, California. The towel roughs up the top layer of skin and dries it out.

Instead of toweling down when the swim session is over, either have your child take a cool shower or sprinkle cool water on his skin for two or three minutes, suggests the dermatologist. ''Then apply a moisturizer like Vaseline to trap water in the skin.''