Cracked skin: causes, diagnosis and treatment

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Cracked skin can just be dry skin on the hands, heels of the feet, or lips that need extra hydration and hydration. However, cracked skin can also be a sign of an infection or even something more.

Find out the causes, symptoms, and treatment for cracked skin.

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Causes and symptoms of cracked skin

When the skin becomes dry, it is more likely to crack, peel, flake, and become irritated.

Depending on the cause of the cracked skin, you may notice other symptoms. Some skin conditions cause many of the same symptoms. Therefore, paying attention to any signs that accompany your cracked skin will help detect the cause.

Dry skin

Dry skin is medically known as xerosis and results from a decrease in the water content in the top layer of your skin. Healthy skin has an outer layer called the skin barrier. It helps prevent water loss from your body and also prevents toxins, infections, allergens, and chemicals from entering your body.

Sometimes your skin barrier weakens, resulting in dry skin. Common causes of dry skin include:

  • Pollution and chemicals: Body washes, dish soap, face wash, scrubs, household cleaners, and air pollution contain chemicals that could dry out your skin.
  • Sun exposure: Sunburn or even just spending time in the sun without sunscreen can increase oil and water loss from your skin.
  • Cold weather and indoor heating: The combination of cold temperatures and low humidity outside and low humidity from indoor heating often dries out the skin.
  • Hot water: Exposure to hot water when showering and washing dishes wicks excess moisture from your skin.
  • Being wet for long periods of time: Spending hours swimming or wearing wet clothes can dry out, wrinkle, and irritate the skin.
  • Clothes, shoes or barefoot walking: Pressure from your clothes, such as straps or walking barefoot, can irritate your skin, causing rashes, blisters, or cracks on your skin.

Eczema

Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is an inflammatory skin condition that results in dry, cracked, and red skin. It often affects the skin of the face, hands, arms and behind the knees.

Common symptoms of eczema include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Dry and cracked plates
  • Redness
  • Bulbs
  • Peeling

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a disease in which skin cells build up, forming dry, scaly patches. It is thought to be caused by an autoimmune response, in which your body mistakenly attacks healthy cells. Psoriasis can be made worse by stress, infections, or cold air.

The patches usually occur on the scalp, elbows, knees, and lower back. Other symptoms of psoriasis can include redness, silvery-white scales, and itching.

Diabetic neuropathy

Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to a complication of neuropathy, which is nerve damage to the feet or hands. Additionally, people with uncontrolled diabetes are more likely to get infections on their feet and have cracked heels.

Other symptoms of diabetic neuropathy include:

  • Poorly healing wounds
  • Numbness in the hands or feet
  • Pain or weakness in the feet, legs, or hands
  • Calluses

Fungal infections

Skin infections such as athlete’s foot or other yeast infections can cause redness, itching, rash, and cracking of the skin.

Fungal infections are more common in people with diabetes or in people who constantly wear wet clothes (swimmers, runners, cyclists).

Exfoliative dermatitis

Erythroderma, or exfoliative dermatitis, is a serious disorder of skin cells that causes exfoliation or loss of the top layers of your skin. It can cover 90% or more of your body and can be due to medications, pre-existing skin conditions, or even cancer. Common symptoms of erythroderma include:

  • Red and cracked plaques
  • White or yellow scaly patches
  • Skin that looks shiny or thin
  • A feeling of tightness of the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Dry or brittle nails

Diagnosis and treatment of cracked skin

To diagnose your cracked skin, a healthcare professional will examine you and ask you questions about your medical history, such as:

  • When did the symptoms appear?
  • Is the area hot or itchy?
  • Have you noticed any bleeding, oozing, or pus near areas of dry skin?
  • Do you have any allergies?
  • Have you used any new products recently?

A healthcare professional may also take a sample of affected skin or any fluid around the area to check for infection.

Once diagnosed, a healthcare professional will help you develop a treatment plan. Cracks caused simply by dry skin are usually easily treated at home with moisturizers or other remedies that tackle the root cause of your dry skin.

Home remedies for dry, cracked skin include:

  • Use of physical or chemical exfoliators on dry areas: These will help remove all layers of dead skin from the surface, including dry areas. Just be careful that they aren’t too harsh, or they could make your skin drier.
  • Regularly use moisturizers: Creams with ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, and aloe vera can help soothe and hydrate the skin.
  • Vaseline: The skin does not easily absorb petroleum jelly, but it is good to use it in addition to moisturizers to help retain moisture.
  • Hydrocortisone cream: Hydrocortisone cream helps relieve redness and itching. It is a topical steroid that calms inflammation of the skin. Soft strengths are available over the counter. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for use and talk to your healthcare professional about the best option for your skin.
  • Antifungal cream or spray: If you have a fungal infection, such as athlete’s foot, there are over-the-counter anti-fungal medications to help kill the fungus. If it doesn’t go away, ask your doctor about other options.

Although some skin conditions that cause cracking of the skin can be treated at home, tell your doctor if you notice these signs of infection:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Skin warm to the touch around the affected area
  • Fever
  • Pus or oozing in or around the area

If you are not sure what is causing your dry skin, it may be helpful to talk to your primary care doctor or a dermatologist, a specialist in skin, hair and nail conditions, to make sure that you are treating the disease properly.

Ways to prevent cracked skin

Some types of cracked skin can be avoided by taking care of your skin and general health. Here are some tips to prevent cracking of the skin:

  • Moisturize areas that often get dry.
  • Use a thicker moisturizer during the cold months.
  • Use petroleum jelly to lock in moisture and as a barrier against cold or dry air.
  • Wear gloves and other protective clothing if exposed to chemical irritants or the weather.
  • Change wet or sweaty clothes as soon as possible.
  • Use a humidifier to humidify indoor air during dry months.
  • Work with your doctor to control other medical conditions like diabetes.

A word from Verywell

Dry, cracked skin can be itchy and sometimes embarrassing to experience. Most of the time, cracked skin is simply caused by extremely dry skin, although sometimes it can be due to other conditions.

You can treat cracked skin by applying moisturizer to soothe the skin and petroleum jelly as a barrier, and avoiding skin irritants. If your skin is not improving, or if you notice any signs of infection, talk to your healthcare professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any home remedies for cracked skin?

Yes. Some home remedies for cracked skin include regular hydration, wearing protective clothing when exposed to the cold, taking shorter showers with warm (not hot) water, using petroleum jelly or of coconut oil on a moisturizer on the skin, putting a humidifier in your room during the dry months and avoiding products that irritate your skin.

How to remove cracked skin from your heels?

You can remove the cracked skin from your heels with chemical or physical exfoliators. Chemical exfoliators that can help dry skin include glycolic acid and lactic acid. You can also rub a loofah, pumice stone, or body scrub on your heels to remove dead skin cells.

What’s the fastest way to treat cracked skin?

You can treat dry skin quickly by treating and removing anything that irritates your skin, like harsh cleansers or soaps, hot showers, long showers, dry air, and exposure to cold.

Go to hot showers for 5-10 minutes, apply moisturizer immediately after washing, wear gloves in cold weather, use humidifiers, change wet clothes as soon as possible, and use gentle products.


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