Playa Foot And Other Dust Issues
The playa is extremely dusty and that dust is highly alkaline. If you've ever done any plaster, concrete, tile, or drywall work you are probably familiar with what alkaline powder does to your skin. The big difference here is that you will be immersed in this dust for a week. The dust is virtually identical to that used in sheet rock - in fact the next town over (Empire) has a mine owned by USG (the sheet rock company) although it was recently closed. In general, the dust is much less caustic when dry.
There is no escaping the dust when you are in the Black Rock Desert. You walk on it, breath it, taste it. It gets in your food and drinks. It coats everything including people. It gets into every nook and cranny of everything. You will take home quite a bit of it without even trying. You really can't imagine it if you've never been there. The best analogy I've heard is to imagine you are in a snow globe filled with dust.
While some people seem completely immune to the dust and can walk barefoot all week (I don't recommend it), many are susceptible to an affliction called Playa Foot. The dust gets on your feet and sweat causes it to be more reactive. The result is a painful, dry, itchy condition commonly called playa foot. In extreme cases the skin will actually crack and bleed as well. Avoid plastic footwear or any shoes that make your feet sweat.
The same condition can happen to hands and is commonly called Playa Paw. I get playa paw really badly and by day two my hands resemble alligator skin, by day five they are cracked and bleeding. It is extremely difficult to lace up boots once your hands get like this.
I've formulated the theory that it is from sticking my hands in the cooler frequently since moisture seems to be a required ingredient for this condition. After a day or two your cooler water takes on a greyish beige tinge from all the dust that gets into it so it is bascally full of alkali water.
Frequent liberal application of skin lotion will help tremendously. Soaking the affected area in a vinegar / water solution helps too. Vinegar is an acid and will help neutralize the alkalinity of the dust. Lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar if you prefer, although it's more expensive. Use no more than a 10% vinegar solution for best results.
The dust can be hell on your throat and usually by day five I have no voice leaving me croaking for the next 7 days, plus several days after getting home. As you might imagine this makes my Greeter shift rather humorous. A campmate turned me on to a partial cure - Pickle Juice! Commercial dill pickles made with vinegar that is - home made brined pickles don't help. I now bring lots of pickles and start eating them on day one. Although it may sound odd, drink the juice too - it tastes great on the playa. Or make picklebacks with it - the playa version is most commonly half whiskey and half pickle juice although the usual shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice works too.
I actually brought more pickles than other food. I started every day with a pickleback and a pickle and never lost my voice in the 12 days I was there. I attribute this 100% to the pickle juice.
For the first time my hands did not suffer horribly either. Although nearly every fingernail was cracked, chipped, or broken and my skin was pretty dry - I only got playa paw late in the week and only one finger was severly affected. I attribute this mostly to minimizing my contact with cooler water.
This was an exceptionally dusty year and we had whiteouts nearly every day. I sucked down way more dust than I would have liked, lost my voice in spite of the pickle juice, and 2 weeks post burn I'm still coughing up playa dust. I discovered that I really detest wearing a dust mask for hours on end (makes talking and drinking difficult), but to my great joy was gifted a Shemagh. When tied properly it acts as a dust mask and is way more comfortable.