updated 1/13/2006 5:47:27 PM ET 2006-01-13T22:47:27

Skin care companies love winter.

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That's because as the temperature drops and the central heating is turned up, dry, chapped and dehydrated customers hit their local supermarkets, pharmacies and malls, spending heavily on various creams and lotions in search of relief.

In fact, according to Packaged Facts, a publishing division of Cleveland-based Market, in 2004, Americans spent more than $1 billion on facial moisturizers and body lotions. That same year, the entire skin care market in the U.S. rang up more than $4.56 billion in sales.

Although many of the biggest names in the fight against cracked skin are made by some of the U.S.'s largest companies — such as Oil of Olay from Procter & Gamble, Neutrogena from Johnson & Johnson, and Lubriderm from Pfizer — there is still plenty of room for smaller companies to establish a niche for themselves, especially at the high end. For example, you probably won't find actress Jennifer Lopez rubbing Jergens on her hands any time soon. The star of "Monster-in-Law" and "Shall We Dance?" is better-known for moisturizing with Crème de La Mer, a cream made from sea kelp, eucalyptus, wheat germ, alfalfa and various other ingredients that sells for $110 per ounce.

In addition to La Mer, there are a number of other producers of pricey skin care, such as New York City-based dermatologist N.V. Perricone, M.D., whose "cosmoceuticals" include a two ounce, $120 Face Lipid Replenishment cream; and haute French skin care company Darphin's replenishing antiwrinkle cream, which sells for $310 an ounce. Even some established names are introducing new, upmarket brands, such as Clé de Peau Beauté from Shiseido, Japan's largest cosmetics maker. Clé de Peau's Beauté's La Crème, which comes complete with a tiny silver spatula for application, sells for $475 per ounce.

Of course, not every cream is that pricey, nor is winter skin protection only about slathering lotions all over one's body. Dr. Andrew S. Alexis, a director at the Department of Dermatology at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City, says consumers shouldn't feel inclined to purchase a lotion or cream just because of price. His favorite brands include Nivea, Eucerin and, in severe cases, Aquaphor — all products from German company Beiersdorf and easily purchased at a local drugstore.

Even more important, he adds, "The first step is to reduce some of the factors that aggravate dry skin symptoms, like avoiding extremely hot showers and baths and reducing the amount of time in them."

There are plenty of other common sense — and inexpensive — ways to keep skin soft when it snows. Dry, dull, even chapped skin can also be attributed to the environment, harsh cleansers and even nutrition. Cari Kamm, creator of Kammplexion skin line, says it's best to eat raw fruits and vegetables high in beta-carotene, along with food high in essential fatty acids like fish, grains, nuts and seeds. "I firmly believe we are what we eat. These simple nutritional suggestions, along with products rich in antioxidants and moisture magnets like Hyaluronic acid, will improve skin noticeably."

Of course, if you have severely dry skin called "winter eczema" or "winter itch," in which the skin is cracked or extremely itchy, a consultation with a dermatologist is recommended where you will be prescribed a steroid ointment or cream to treat the problem.

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