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Coping with Dry, Cracked Feet

Solutions for a Common Skin Problem


Updated May 16, 2014

Young woman applying lotion to foot, close-up, low section
E. Dygas/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Dry skin, especially on the feet, is a problem that most people experience at one time or another. Sometimes dry skin occurs on widespread areas of the body, secondary to other health issues. Or perhaps only the feet are affected, resulting in cracked skin or calluses on the heels or soles of the feet. Dry skin, also known as xerosis, can simply be a cosmetic problem or it may lead to symptoms such as itchiness, a skin rash, or even pain and secondary infection.

Other skin conditions that result in dry, thickened skin include athlete's foot (tinea pedis), leg vein problems (venous stasis), psoriasis, and skin rashes caused by allergy or irritants. A common cause of dry, scaly skin and accentuated skin lines on a child's feet is the condition atopic dermatitis.

Common Causes of Dry Skin

  • Physical Stress: The environment inside a shoe can get very hot -- sometimes well over 120 degrees. Heat and humidity changes result in water loss from the skin and ultimately result in the thickening of the top layer of skin.

  • Skin Cleansers: Certain soaps can strip protective oils from the skin or leave irritating residues that contribute to dry skin.

  • Medical Conditions: Diabetes, hypothyroidism, and malnutrition are a few common conditions that may cause dry skin. Dietary deficiency of vitamin A or certain essential fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), can also be an underlying cause. Conditions that cause digestive malabsorption, such as Crohn's disease or celiac disease, may lead to vitamin and essential fatty acid deficiencies.

  • Aging: Hormonal and metabolic changes over time decrease skin cell turnover, resulting in a thickening of the skin's outermost layer, known as the stratum corneum. Also, as we age, the protective fat pad on the sole of the foot gets thinner. Loss of this cushioning in the heel and ball of the foot can increase skin stress, leading to cracked, callused skin.

  • Cold Weather: Dry skin often worsens in the winter months, mostly due to indoor heating and low humidity.

Treatment of Dry Skin

If your feet have calluses, cracked skin, wounds, or rashy, dry skin that does not improve with creams or lotions, an evaluation by a podiatrist is a good place to start -- most importantly to identify and treat secondary causes of dry skin, such as athlete's foot or eczema. Corns and calluses can be safely removed by your podiatrist, which is a great way to improve the appearance of your feet and prevent future problems, such as pain and skin wounds. Also, severe dry skin may require prescription-strength creams.

Tips for Healthy, Beautiful Feet

  • Use a daily foot cream, preferably one that contains alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) or urea. Alpha-hydroxy acids help slough off dead skin cells and increase moisture retention in the skin's epidermis. Examples of alpha-hydroxy acids include glycolic acid and lactic acid.

  • For rough or cracked areas of skin, try applying lanolin, which acts as an effective moisture barrier. Lanolin can be found over-the-counter and is usually labeled as a product for breastfeeding mothers, although it can be used for any form of dry, chapped skin.

  • If you are prone to allergies or skin sensitivities, use skin products that are labeled as hypoallergenic or formulated for sensitive skin.

  • For rough areas on the soles of the feet, use a foot file or pumice stone after bathing or soaking your feet. This routine is very effective at keeping calluses from building up on the soles. For dry skin on the tops of the feet and on the legs, try a loofah sponge or exfoliating skin product. For more information, see How To Have Prettier Feet Now.

  • Dietary intake of the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) can improve dry skin by decreasing epidermal water loss. Good sources of ALA include flaxseed oil, walnuts, and canola oil. Sources of GLA include borage oil or evening primrose oil, which are usually taken as capsules.


Linus Pauling Institute. Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health. Oregon State University. Accessed 5/16/12.

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