NEW YORK — There’s a chill in the air, and nothing makes the skin care market happier — because moisturizers are hot, hot, hot.

With temperatures plummeting, women and men are desperate for some relief from dry skin and chapped lips. Starting in December, body and facial lotions, creams and ointments have been flying off shelves, along with lip balms.

"Cold weather, as much as we might all dislike it — and this winter seems like it is going to be endless — is just great for our business," said Ellen Finn, a marketing manager at Beiersdorf, which markets the Nivea, Eucerin and Aquaphor skin care brands.

Finn said retail sales of the hand-and-body category in the U.S. grew 12 percent in December. Referring specifically to the Beiersdorf lineup, "our Eucerin business grew 30 percent, Aquaphor grew 50 percent and Nivea grew 23 percent."

At Olay, sales are up 20 percent for the season. "We find the combination of really cold temperatures and cold air really dries skin, and combined with the artificial heat and lack of humidity indoors, it can really wreak havoc," said Michael Kuremski, Olay brand manager. "It is definitely a period when consumption increases. What we find is consumers tend to use more per use or go to a twice-a-day application and may also add in a night cream."

Finn noted that the sales spike has helped the industry end 2002 on a high note, after an otherwise flat year.

The average temperature in New York City for December 2002 came in eight degrees below December 2001 — at 36 degrees, compared with 44 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center, a division of the National Weather Service. In the first 14 days of January, five days recorded average temperatures below normal. The coldest day so far, Jan. 14, had an average temperature of 24 degrees — 8 degrees below normal.

Scott Bernhardt, a researcher at Planalytic, a consulting group that predicts consumer demand based on weather conditions, advised retailers to stay stocked up. Demand for cold-season items, he said, "will continue to be strong for January and February."Kiehl’s, for one, has sold out of its 0.7-oz. lip balm jar at its New York store, and the Philadelphia store ran out of the lip balm tube, according to Cammie Cannella, assistant vice president of education at Kiehl’s. The lip balm is the company’s top-selling item. Scott Shaffer, education executive for the Midwest, where the brand has distribution in specialty stores like Neiman Marcus, said "despite our best efforts, almost invariably one size runs out in every store."

Cannella noted that the brand’s All Sport Non-Freeze Face Protector, a face product introduced last year in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, has also been a hit.

Linda Adams, a skin care consultant at the Derma Skincare Center at Brooks Pharmacy in Providence, R.I., said: "Women are coming in with dehydrated and dry skin, anytime there is a climate change it affects the skin." She said the center, which carries the French Vichy and Avene brands, along with a smattering of Dermablend items, has had an increase in sales of antiage care items and moisturizers. She said the Avene lip balm, priced at $8 a stick,has been on fire.

"I was really amazed," said Adams. "When people found out we have them in the store, they are coming in and buying six or eight at a time. They were so afraid they would come back and we would be out of it."

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