Three doctors share how to heal dry, cracked feet for softer heels, soles, and toes. Plus: the primary causes of dry feet.
I have a confession: My feet are really, really dry. I’ve tried dozens of treatments—from peels and creams to foot files and even a fish pedicure in Bali—in the hopes of fixing my hard, dry foot skin… and yet I’m still on the hunt for the ultimate solution.
Ready to get to *the bottom* of the problem and learn how to fix dry, cracked heels for good, I asked a few specialists for some desperately needed tips.
Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Beverly Hills, says that there are three main causes of dry feet:
First, you may notice that your feet get especially dry in the winter and/or summer.
“Cool, dry winters with moisture-sucking electric heaters, wool socks, boots, and synthetic tights wick moisture from the skin, leading to dryness,” Dr. Shainhouse explains.
Then, come summertime, the hot and dry weather can lead to skin dryness as well.
Next, since too much friction and pressure can exacerbate dry, scaly feet, your choice of footwear comes into play.
In particular, “Backless shoes and flip flops provide minimal foot support, which increases pressure on the heels and surrounding skin,” Dr. Shainhouse continues. “They also cause your heels to rub on the back edges of the shoe.”
As a result, she concludes, wearing open shoes and shoes without socks “can force your skin to thicken and toughen up as a means of protection.”
Further, Hillary Brenner, DPM, a board-certified podiatric surgeon based in NYC, adds that a lifestyle that causes you to be on your feet for long periods of time can also contribute to wear and tear.
Then, both the wrong products and a lack of proper care could also be a root cause of dry feet.
“Not moisturizing dry feet to hydrate and soften the skin—as well as helping to strengthen and protect the skin barrier—can lead to skin over-dryness, thickening, and cracks,” Dr. Shainhouse explains.
Plus, when it comes to healing dry feet, sooner is always better. “Not dissolving callouses and thick patches before they become too thick and inelastic can lead to thickening and cracks [that are more difficult to repair],” she warns.
Dr. Brenner adds that other causes of dry feet include:
Plus, “Dry, cracked heels can also be more prevalent after menopause, when skin naturally becomes drier due to estrogen loss,” Dr. Shainhouse mentions.
Lastly, if you’re wondering if you can blame dry heels on genetics, Emily Splichal, DPM, MS, CES, a podiatrist based in Scottsdale, Arizona, says that won’t quite work. However, she mentions that “there are some conditions that can affect the sweat glands and oil production in the feet,” which may increase the likelihood of them being dried out.
Now, for the good part: Here are the best ways to heal dry feet.
First, Dr. Brenner recommends exfoliating your feet two to three times a week.
As she puts it, “The idea is to get rid of as much dryness and layers of skin as possible so you can get the best bang for your buck with your moisturizer.” (And by that, she means your foot lotion won’t have to penetrate through extra layers to get to work.)
She suggests using an exfoliating foot scrub rather than a pumice stone, since fungus can potentially grow in a dark, moist environment. Dr. Splichal particularly recommends finding scrubs that pack exfoliating acids—including lactic acid, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid—or papaya enzymes.
However, if you do prefer to use a callus remover or foot file, Dr. Shainhouse notes that doing so can certainly make calluses and hard patches less tender in the short term. However, she says that “the skin will likely thicken back up if the trigger (e.g., rubbing, friction, wearing flip flips) continues.”
If you’ve ever seen or used a foot peel before, you know how oddly satisfying it is to witness layers (upon layers) of dead, dry skin shed off. Otherwise, if you’re new to foot peels, consider trying one out to jumpstart your regimen.
What to expect: You simply slip on a plastic bootie doused in exfoliating ingredients, wait about an hour or so, then waddle off to the bathtub to rinse off the solution.
Just know that it can take up to a week or two for softer skin to reveal itself. Also, Dr. Shainhouse cautions that this product can irritate sensitive skin types—so if it stings, be sure to rinse it off early.
I’ve tried a handful (footful?) of treatments from other brands, but have found the most success with Dermora foot peels.
For another targeted foot treatment, Dr. Brenner recommends soaking your feet two to three times per week.
While an epsom salt soak should do the job, you can also look for a dedicated foot soak product. She particularly recommends one that contains Dead Sea salt, which is effective yet still gentle enough for super sensitive skin types. (If you ever make it to Israel or Jordan, don’t pass up the chance to float in the healing water for full-body benefits!)
Now that you have a fresh canvas to work with, it’s time to moisturize. Since the skin on your feet is much thicker than that on your body or face, a targeted foot lotion is your best bet.
Dr. Shainhouse and Dr. Splichal both recommend products that contain urea, which has water-binding properties to hydrate and soften skin. Also keep your eye out for emollient ingredients, such as shea butter and colloidal oatmeal.
For best results, moisturize your feet once or twice daily.
Tip: Since we know that water binds to water, aim to slather on foot lotion while your skin is still damp after showering. Then, to go the extra mile, both doctors also recommend wrapping your feet in plastic wrap and wearing socks overnight to really lock moisture in.
Since we learned that poor support and the wrong choice of footwear can cause dry feet, it may be time rethink your footwear.
“Wear protective barriers and supportive, well-fitting shoes in order to prevent recurrences,” Dr. Shainhouse advises. “These include wearing sweat-absorbent socks and avoiding wearing flip flops, sandals, and sling-back shoes,” when possible.
Additionally, Dr. Brenner suggests padding your shoes with soft, cushioned inserts. She says they can help with shock absorption and alleviating pressure from the foot.
All in all, if you’re committed to fixing your dry feet for good, Dr. Brenner advises that the best way to approach it is to follow a dedicated regimen like you would for your face.
While figuring out how to heal dry, cracked feet is a process, these pro tips should lead you in the right direction. However, if you’re not experiencing desired results, you may want to see a podiatrist or dermatologist for a medical-grade treatment.
As for my own dry heel woes? I’ll be diving into these treatments—you guessed it—feet first.