Dry cracked heels can be painful and embarrassing. If you’ve ever accidentally scratched your partner trying to play footsie on a cold morning, or left your favorite summer sandals in the closet on the hottest day of the year, it’s likely you have heel fissures: irritating, often painful dry skin that can thicken, discolor, crack, bleed, and just generally ruin your good time.
The good news? You’re not alone. According to this survey by the Institute for Preventive Foot Health, as many as 20% of adults suffer with uncomfortable and unsightly dry, cracked, or yellow heels.
The better news? We can help. Maybe you thought dry skin on your feet is something you have to live with, or that treatments involve expensive chemical peels that normal people don’t have the time, money, or energy to afford. Banish this fear now!
The best news? You are just minutes away from finding (affordable) relief, protection, and comfort. Prepare to have smooth heels, and the confidence that comes along with ‘em. Let’s get started!
Let’s Talk About Heel Fissures
There are many foot-related health issues that can cause pain and discomfort. Bunions and hammertoes can wreak havoc on the toes, plantar fasciitis can cause sharp pains that limit movement, and heel spurs can make walking painful. If, however, your foot drama is cracking of the heels - you probably have heel fissures.
Heel fissures occur when dryness, pressure, and unsupportive shoes combine to thicken and discolor the heels of the feet, resulting in the cracks known as fissures. These cracks can be mild and easily smoothed out, or they can be more severe, even appearing yellow or crusty. The most severe heel fissures can result in pain, bleeding, or infection - and if you’re at this point, we’d recommend seeing your doctor or a trusted healthcare professional.
Mild to moderate heel fissures, however, can often be treated from the comfort of home. This article will help dig into the common causes of heel fissures, and demonstrate how to treat them with just an Amazon account and things you probably already have in your kitchen or bathroom. By the end, you’ll be armed with knowledge on what causes heel fissures, and how to prevent or fix them. Let’s go!
What Causes Dry, Cracked Heels?
Dry, cracked heels have a number of causes, that can be medical or environmental. At the most basic definition, heel fissures are caused by extreme dryness in the feet. Dry skin loses elasticity, and added pressure can thicken the skin to create calluses. Dry climate, open-back shoes, and pressure of standing or being on your feet all day causes this already-hardened skin to start cracking. Left untreated, it can progress to pain or bleeding. We’re here to help you out before it gets to that point.
Helping to narrow down why you’re experiencing crusty yellow heels can make it easier to find the perfect treatment - so let’s go over some of the more common causes!
First, dry cracked heels could be a symptom of a medical condition. Some of the most common are:
Athlete’s Foot, or other Fungal Infection
Dermatitis, or Eczema
Please note these are certainly not the only medical conditions that cause heel fissures, but they are some of the more likely suspects. If you suspect a medical condition is causing your foot problems, we suggest chatting with your doctor.
Athlete’s Foot is a surprising cause of cracked heels. Most people are aware of the fungal infection, but may not be aware that it can cause cracking and infection in the heels and soles of the feet. We often assume dryness is simply a result of under-lotioned and under-pampered feet (because, heck, they often are!), when occasionally an infection can actually be to blame. If treatments listed in this article don’t provide results, we suggest visiting your doctor to see if Athlete’s Foot could be the cause! (And don’t worry, the treatment is an over-the-counter cream!)
Dermatitis (or Eczema)
Dermatitis is a skin condition that causes itchy, scaly skin, or a small pimple-like rash. Often, dermatitis is caused by contact with an allergen, which can be a lotion, material, or even something you ate (peanuts, gluten, eggs, and even certain spices are all common culprits here). It can also be caused by poor circulation, repeated scratching, or underlying autoimmune conditions. The rash can appear anywhere on the body, including the soles of your feet. Eczema is a broader term for types of dermatitis, which can range from mild to severe. Some sufferers report mild irritation and occasional flare-ups, while more severe dermatitis or eczema can cause painful itching, redness, and peeling or cracked skin.
Diabetes is a fairly common condition in which the body struggles to make enough or regulate insulin production. This causes blood sugar levels to rise, which can have a host of serious health problems. One of those problems is nerve damage, which often presents in the feet. This means those with diabetes may not know they’ve suffered a foot injury, or may not be aware of related conditions that could cause pain, dryness, or cracking on the heels. We’re definitely not here to scare you, so if you believe your dry heels could be a symptom of diabetes (especially if you’ve been diagnosed already, or have any of the other common risk factors or symptoms), please follow up with your doctor. Diabetes is a very manageable condition, but it needs more than our at-home foot care treatments can offer.
One additional common cause of heel cracking is psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic condition that causes itchy, sometimes painful, rashes on the skin. Often, the rash is limited to the trunk and joints (elbows, knees), but some people with psoriasis experience this uncomfortable itching on their hands and feet. Psoriasis is a lifelong condition, but most people experience flare-ups and are aware of certain triggers (foods, drinks, medications) that make the condition worse.
Environmental or Physical Causes
Of course, just because you’re battling dry, cracked skin does not mean you have one of these underlying health conditions.
There are also a variety of environmental and physical factors that can cause cracking in the heels. Some (not all!) of them are:
Age: As we age, our skin tends to thin out and become more susceptible to cracking and dryness. Plus, the cumulative pressure of living a life on our feet tends to take its toll. Just another gift from the cruel mistress of time.
Weight: Heavier folks put more pressure on their feet, which in turn causes tougher skin which is more likely to crack and even face infection. Additionally, weight-related conditions like diabetes can cause nerve damage in the feet, which means less of a likelihood sufferers will notice foot problems early on.
Occupation: Cracking occurs when the tough skin on your heels starts to break, and having callused feet can speed up this process. Foot calluses can be caused by jobs that require standing for long periods of time, or require the worker to be walking and moving around all day.
Environment: Live someplace dry or with low humidity? Congrats, a recipe for dry, cracked heels. Constantly wearing sandals because it's too hot to mess with anything else? Yeah, sadly exposing your feet to the elements can dry them out.
Pregnancy: Pregnancy causes weight gain (sorry) and swelling (sorry again), and also sometimes just plays tricks with the immune system which can cause dryness or susceptibility to new infections. Additionally, many women find their shoe size changes permanently after pregnancy (surprise!), and squeezing into too-small shoes can also cause foot pain and skin irritation.
Lastly, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the various conditions that can impact your heels. This Healthline article goes even deeper into some of the more obscure causes, but here’s a quick rundown for you:
Juvenile plantar dermatosis
It’s important to pinpoint why your feet are experiencing this discomfort, so that you can make sure to treat them properly and safely.
Preventing Heel Fissures & Cracked, Dry Heels
Before we roll into treatment, let’s make a quick pit stop at prevention. If you’ve struggled with heel cracking or crusty toes in the past, or have a condition that makes your feet more susceptible to fissures, it’s definitely worthwhile to keep your feet healthy and avoid some pain and discomfort!
Some of our favorite prevention methods are:
Water: Yes, water really is the answer to everything, and there’s a reason everyone from your mother to your doctor to your favorite podcast hosts are constantly telling you to drink more water. Keeping your skin healthy and hydrated is a simple way to prevent dry skin on your heels that can lead to cracking and fissures.
Pumice Stone: To keep dry skin from building up too much on your feet, and eventually causing cracking, try a pumice stone! These special stones help reduce build up and skin thickening, and can be easily used after showering a few times a week. A foot file is an equally great option, just choose something gentle to remove the dead skin without hurting your foot further. Bonus - it feels great and you’ll stop shocking your partner with sharp heels.
The Right Footwear: The best way to treat your heels is by protecting them from unnecessary exposure to the elements, or unsupportive shoes. It is best to avoid sandals, open back shoes, or shoes that don’t offer much heel support (or cause too much pressure, like high heels). Instead, find shoes with closed heels, cushioning, and a thick outsole. If this advice makes you roll your eyes, keep reading!
Any Footwear: One very common cause of heel dryness is bopping around not wearing shoes. Keeping your feet cushioned, moisturized, and protected is the best way to keep them soft and smooth - so invest in some nice house slippers, or comfy breathable socks if you’re working one of those remote jobs!
Support Gels, Insoles, or Inserts: Of course, if you’re like many people, the option of not wearing sandals or not going barefoot or not putting on heels for the night out isn’t a reasonable option all of the time. We get that - so if you must wear those uncomfortable shoes, we suggest orthotics, support gels, heel cups, or comfy heel guards.
Pampering: We’ll dig into this in our treatment section, but prevention also starts with regular foot-self-care. Using a foot cream, spa socks, or getting regular pedicures to remove dry skin goes a long way toward keeping your feet happy and healthy.
Treatment for Dry, Cracked Heels
Now that you’re properly armed to understand why you’re experiencing dryness and cracking in your heels, we can start the treatment! In this section, we’ll explore:
Lotions, Creams, & Home Moisturizers
Moisturizing Heel Socks
Medicines and Ointments
Most of the time, healing your heels can be done at-home, relatively affordably, and can even be a relaxing, self-care, pampering experience. However, as with any dry skin and cracking, there is always the chance that deep fissures can become infected. If you experience any pain while attempting to treat your heels at home, please contact your doctor.
Lotions, Creams, & Home Moisturizers
One of the most effective at-home treatment options for heel fissures is lotion. Sounds logical, right? We all know that lotion is excellent for improving dry skin, but it can be easy to forget your feet when you’re moisturizing for the day. (It doesn’t help that you're usually, you know, standing on them when applying lotion everywhere else). So, first, simply remember your feet when moisturizing. The best time to moisturize is following a shower, because the skin is clean and ready to soak up the creams, or or before bed when you’re able to relax and allow the moisturizer to get to work.
Next, you’ll want a quality lotion or cream. Foot creams are available in a variety of textures, ingredients, and even scents! If it feels a little overwhelming, look for hypoallergenic creams with hydrators (urea, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum) and smoothers (salicylic acid, Vitamin E, shea butter). One we really like is made by our friends at Sallye Ander Foot Therapy Cream!
Want to try something more natural than regular foot creams? One doctor even recommends honey, noting its cleansing and healing properties. Just try not to do this one while camping.
Spa socks, or lotion socks are a low-cost way to treat your thirsty heels. While good quality natural-material moisture-wicking socks are great, these socks are specially designed to help keep the heels moisturized and healthy. Unlike skin elsewhere on the body, heels do not have oil glands, which makes them extra susceptible to drying out - and that’s before you walk around on them all day or shove them into uncomfortable shoes. Spa socks have the comfort, shock absorption, and pressure reduction of regular socks, plus they often contain aloe, gel, or silicone lining designed to give your heels a little extra hydration and love. Most are also designed to fit any size foot, and they’re usually available in a full sock or a heel sock depending on user preference.
Wondering if there’s a particular sock we recommend? We thought you’d never ask!
Moisturizing Heel Socks
Our bestselling Moisturizing Heel Socks are the perfect answer to those cracking, dry heels. We’ve designed these babies to be comfortable, breathable, and one-size-fits-most. Our socks have a thin gel lining that sits right on the heel, nourishing and smoothing your heel as long as you have it on. Some customers wear them all night with a favorite foot cream. Others prefer to wear them around the house while attending to chores or chasing after kids. Either way, they’re going to work on your heels so you can go about your day without worrying. Moisture is locked in, but the fabric is also breathable and the half-sock design keeps your toes free from overheating. You won’t know how you lived without them.
Exfoliating the skin on your heels is a great way to prevent and protect your feet, but it can be just as useful when it comes to healing those pesky cracked heels. Since heel fissures are cracks in the dried skin of your heels, a key way to stop them is to remove that dry skin! Exfoliation can help. First, a good exfoliant is key, and these fall into a few categories:
Pumice stones or Foot Files: As discussed above, these are excellent for sloughing off the dead skin (that sounds gross right? Get that skin gone!).
Foot Bath: Try soaking your feet in warm water, which can help loosen the tough skin and make it easier to scrub.
Foot Peels: A special mask for your feet, designed to remove dead skin without scrubbing (make sure you find a quality peel - do your research!).
Pedicures: If it’s in your budget, regular pedicures can be a little gift from the heavens. A trained professional will soak your feet, and remove the dead skin (usually with a file or stone), and moisturize the heck out of your feet. You’ll feel like a new person (and if you don’t like nail polish, you can skip that part).
Exfoliating does not need to be done daily, and overdoing it can damage the skin further. Usually every other week is a good place to start. One thing to note is that certain soaps can actually dry skin further, so if you’re experiencing additional dryness after washing, it might be time to try something new!
Medicines & Ointments
If at-home remedies aren’t enough, there are medical options you can explore! Liquid bandages can be applied on the cracks to promote healing. Over-the-counter ointments that contain urea to remove dead skin, and moisturizers like Vitamin E and hyaluronic acid, can be particularly helpful for stubbornly cracked heels. These are formulated to be stronger than regular lotions and creams, so make sure to follow the directions as indicated.
Establish A Routine
If your heel fissures are slow to heal, why not combine a few of these techniques? Establish a foot care routine that you can stick to - file weekly after showering, make sure to use lotion daily, and use spa socks nightly or as-needed. Find something that works for you and your lifestyle, budget, and schedule. There are many sample routines out there, but remember you can also find quality foot care products for relatively cheap, so don’t believe you have to buy that $100 foot care kit (but hey, no shame if you do!). You’re on the way to smooth, dare-we-say-sexy feet.
If this collection of suggestions doesn’t yield results - it may be time to check with your podiatrist or dermatologist for something stronger. Don’t neglect those precious feet!
But Wait - There’s More!
Before we wrap up like a heel in a comfortable little sock, there are a couple things left to note. The first is that treating dry, cracked heels is a process. You aren’t going to get results overnight, especially with lotions, creams, or comfy socks. Pumice stones or a really quality pedicure may leave your heels softer and smoother, but even those are meant to be part of an ongoing routine. Anyone promising to fix your heel fissures overnight is overpromising like a bad first date. Allow the products to work as intended! For example, our Moisturizing Heel Socks will start yielding results in just one week, and many products have a similar timeframe.
Most of the time, crusty or flaky heels are caused by dry skin, usually for one of the many reasons detailed above. However, they can occasionally become infected, or be indicative of a more severe skin or autoimmune problem. If over-the-counter treatments aren’t helping, or you’re experiencing pain, difficulty walking, bleeding, or any symptoms that just don’t feel right: we strongly recommend seeing a podiatrist or trusted medical professional. Don’t delay. Foot health impacts overall body health, and crusty heels can be more than just a cosmetic issue.
Ok, We’re Actually Done Now
Whether you browsed this article for highlights relevant to your feet, or devoted a full lunch break to absorbing our tips, we’re happy you’re here. Remember, a full fifth of the population struggles with dry, cracked heels and heel fissures, so you are absolutely not alone. It’s important to go into the world armed with the tools to prevent and treat your feet, because foot health improves overall health.
And because sometimes you want to play footsie without embarrassing yourself.
Written by: Jess Krzyczkowski
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ben Frederick
Looking for more foot-related content? (We know how that sounds). Check out our article: 7 DIY Foot Care Tricks for Happy Healthy Feet.