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by Fayne Frey, M.D. Board Certified Dermatologist
You may enjoy the winter, but it’s not great for skin
Winter can be beautiful, especially in the Northeast. Think about the white covered mountains, translucent icicles sparkling in the trees, and snow angels embedded in lawns next to adorable snowmen. Even Texas had a lovely little snowfall this year that many enjoyed. Unfortunately, with the beauty of the season comes dry winter air and some really annoying skin issues.
Nobody Likes Dry Cracked Heels
Recently, a woman in my office told me her pants scratched against the back of her heels when she undressed at night. She complained her heels were so dry they caught on her socks both when she put them on and took them off. When she looked more closely, she noticed the small cracks in her skin.
I explained that dry winter skin is a common problem. In fact, over 20% of American adults over age 21 experience dry cracked heels, especially during the colder months. More women than men suffer with cracked heels, also known as heel fissures. Provided the cracks are small and superficial, this issue is often nothing more than a cosmetic nuisance. However, deep “heel fissures” can be quite painful, and in rare cases, lead to infection.
Why does the skin on your heels crack?
A number of possible causes exist for cracked heels and the accompanying dry callused skin around the rim of your heels. Dry winter air commonly causes this condition, however, there are additional factors to consider.
Causes of cracked heels:
- Dry winter air causes skin dryness and prevents the normal layers of skin from shedding
- Prolonged standing, especially on hard floors.
- Obesity increases the pressure exerted on the fat pad in the heel.
- Certain medical conditions like diabetic neuropathy, psoriasis, eczema, and fungal infections can cause additional problems.
Treatment for cracked heels:
As my patient fortunately had no underlying conditions, I provided her with the following recommendations:
- Moisturize after showering and reapply later in the day
Use therapeutic emollients that contain humectants, which are water absorbing compounds like urea or lactic acid.
Exfoliate as needed with an alpha-hydroxy acid cream to help smooth the skin on the heels.
- Apply petrolatum at bedtime
Occlusive-based moisturizers, like petrolatum, applied at bedtime may soften the calluses and help repair skin dryness and heel cracks. (You might want to wear thin cotton socks to avoid getting the petrolatum on your sheets)
- Use a pumice stone
- A pumice stone used after showering, but before moisturizing, gently helps remove dry skin and calluses.
- Cover deep fissures with antibacterial ointment
Antibacterial ointment helps prevent infection if deep fissures develop.
- Return to your doctor
If pain, redness, bleeding or swelling develops, you need to consult a physician.
The result? My patient did quite well. She purchased an over-the-counter lactic acid and urea containing moisturizer at a local pharmacy, applying it to her feet every morning and afternoon. She could easily do so while working from home, compliments of Covid-19. In addition, she smothered her heels with petrolatum and wore thin cotton socks at bedtime. Within several days she noticed an improvement. After two weeks, her heels were “back to normal.”
Give your feet some love to avoid dry cracked heels
As is the case for many medical conditions, prevention is the best treatment for dry cracked heels! In other words, don’t forget to give your feet a little love. Moisturize your feet regularly during the autumn months, before the very dry low humidity winter air arrives. As recommended above, use a moisturizer with humectants to hydrate the skin on your heels twice a day.
Enjoy the winter, and take care of your feet!
Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products, and, as a speaker, has captivated audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She has consulted for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post, and has shared her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets. Dr. Frey is the Founder of FryFace.com, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles. Dr. Frey is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
This article is not intended as medical advice. Please visit your doctor with your concerns and questions.
Originally published Jan 22, 2021
Updated: Jan 13, 2022