How to Go Bare-Legged in Winter

Trying out a cycling trick in place of tights
Illustration: Cari Vander Yacht

As far as pantyhose sales go, it’s been a fantastic winter. Too bad many outfits look terrible with them. And what woman doesn’t tire of wearing clingy synthetic legwear to work every day through March? Pants are an option, obviously, but they’ll never be the same as a great dress.

Earlier this winter, several beauty blogs came up with a bracing proposal: Ladies could go bare-legged on the commute if they started using what’s called an embrocation cream. The word “embrocation” has an old-timey appeal. One pharmaceutical manual from 1845 defined the substance as “a fluid medicine rubbed on any part of the body.” Ingredients could include opium tincture or olive oil or vinegar. In the modern world, embrocations are used primarily by hard-core cyclists, who rub the balms over exposed limbs before wintry excursions to increase blood circulation and warm the skin.

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Today’s creams—there are dozens of new brands—share a formula of natural essences (wintergreen, tea tree, clove, camphor) mixed with a buttery base (shea butter, beeswax, lanolin). The active ingredient tends to be capsicum, an extract of red chili pepper used widely in medicine and cosmetics. It’s a skin irritant, which you know if you’ve scorched your tongue on Sichuan food. Side effects can include burning (which is desired in this case) and itching (which is never desired). The secondary ingredients of embro creams are for moisturizing, scenting, or—in the case of camphor—additional bursts of minor skin irritation. “There’s no evidence it’s dangerous,” says Jason Boynton, an exercise physiologist in Madison, Wis. “Capsicum works on particular thermal receptors—there’s no actual warmth coming from the creams.”

Using these instead of tights is either a great Internet trick or an incredibly stupid idea. My daily commute—a 1.1 mile walk to the office in downtown Manhattan—provides an ideal testing ground, so I ordered three pots of embro with good Amazon reviews.

The first contender was Mad Alchemy Russian tea warming embrocation. The rust-colored paste smelled like a delicious holiday candle and dissolved into my skin with a shimmer after a vigorous kneading while wearing latex gloves. (Cycling blogs recommend the gloves, so you don’t rub your eyes afterward and go temporarily blind.) After 10 minutes of speed-walking in 38F weather, my legs warmed slightly. The cream didn’t eliminate the slap of cold air but did replace it with a more tolerable kind of pain, as if my limbs were being rubbed with the rough side of a sponge. Not bad.

Other creams, such as the unfortunately named DZnuts InHeat embrocation, suggest shaving before applying. Don’t. If the oil gets into an unnoticed cut, you will scream. The product itself didn’t hold up, necessitating a drugstore stop to purchase tights.

Next, I rode a bike to my office, after painting my legs with Paceline Eurostyle hot embrocation. The temperature outside was 36F. This time, the stuff worked—too well. After five minutes of vigorous pedaling, my leg pores blazed like a thousand tiny bonfires. They kept burning throughout the day, as I replied to e-mails and attended meetings. If Paceline ever saturates the cyclists market, it would be wise to market this stuff for chronic self-flagellators. It’s like an invisible, contemporary version of a religious penitent’s hair shirt.

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