How to Diagnose and Treat Cracked Skin

Cracked skin could simply be dry skin on the hands, heels of the feet, or lips that needs additional hydration and moisture. However, cracked skin could also be a sign of an infection or even something more.

Read about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of cracked skin.

Male rubbing moisturising lotion on dry elbows and arm

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Causes and Symptoms of Cracked Skin

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

Depending on the cause of cracked skin, you may notice some other symptoms. Some skin conditions cause many of the same symptoms, so paying attention to all the 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 of water content in the top layer of your skin. Healthy skin has an outer layer known as 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 becomes weakened, resulting in dry skin. Common causes of dry skin include:

  • Pollution and chemicals: Bodywash, dish soap, face wash, scrubs, household cleaners, and air pollution contain chemicals that could dry out your skin.
  • Sun exposure: Sunburns or even just spending time in the sun without sun protection can increase the loss of oils and water from your skin.
  • Cold weather and indoor heating: The combination of cold temperatures and low humidity outside plus low humidity from indoor heating often dries out the skin.
  • Hot water: Exposure to hot water when taking showers and washing dishes draws excess moisture out of your skin.
  • Being wet for long periods of time: Spending hours swimming or wearing damp clothing can cause your skin to dry out, wrinkle, and become irritated.
  • Clothing, footwear, or walking barefoot: Pressure from your clothing like straps or walking barefoot could irritate your skin, leading to rashes, blisters, or cracks in 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 on the face, hands, arms, and behind the knees.

Common symptoms of eczema include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Dry, cracked patches
  • Redness
  • Blisters
  • Peeling

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a condition in which skin cells build up, forming scaly, dry patches. It’s thought to be caused by an autoimmune response, in which your body mistakenly attacks healthy cells. Psoriasis may be worsened 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 may lead to the complication of neuropathy, which is nerve damage in the feet or hands. In addition, 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 like—athlete’s foot or other yeast infections—can cause redness, itching, rashes, and cracked skin.

Fungal infections are more common in people with diabetes or people who are constantly in damp clothing (swimmers, runners, cyclists).

Exfoliative Dermatitis

Erythroderma, or exfoliative dermatitis, is a severe skin cell disorder that causes the top layers of your skin to exfoliate, or shed. It can cover 90% or more of your body and may be due to medications, preexisting skin conditions, or even cancer. The common symptoms of erythroderma include:

  • Red, cracked patches
  • White or yellow scaly patches
  • Skin that appears glossy or thin
  • A tight feeling of the skin
  • Hair loss
  • Dry or brittle nails

Diagnosis and Treatment of Cracked Skin

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

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

A healthcare provider may also take a sample of the affected skin or any fluids around the area to test for infection.

Once a diagnosis is made, a healthcare provider will help you develop a treatment plan. Cracks simply caused by dry skin usually are easily treated at home with moisturizers or other remedies that address the cause of your dry skin.

Home remedies for dry, cracked skin include:

  • Using physical or chemical exfoliators on dry patches: These will help remove any layers of dead skin from the surface, including dry patches. Just be careful they aren’t too harsh, or they could make your skin drier.
  • Using moisturizers regularly: Creams with ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, and aloe can help soothe and moisturize the skin.
  • Petroleum jelly: The skin doesn’t absorb petroleum jelly easily, but it is good to use on top of moisturizers to help lock in moisture.
  • Hydrocortisone cream: Hydrocortisone cream helps ease redness and itchiness. It is a topical steroid and calms the inflammation in the skin. Mild strengths are available over the counter. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use, and talk with your healthcare provider about the best option for your skin.
  • Antifungal cream or spray: If you have a fungal infection, like athlete’s foot, there are over-the-counter antifungal medications to help kill the fungus. If it doesn’t go away, ask your doctor for other options. 

While some skin conditions that cause cracked skin can be treated at home, talk with your doctor if you notice these signs of infection:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Skin that is warm to the touch around the affected area
  • Fever
  • Pus or oozing at or around the area

If you aren’t sure what’s causing your dry skin, it can be helpful to talk with your primary care doctor or a dermatologist, a specialist in conditions of the skin, hair, and nails, to ensure you’re treating the correct condition.

Ways to Prevent Cracked Skin

Some types of cracked skin can be prevented by taking care of your skin and overall health. Here are some tips for preventing cracked skin:

  • Moisturize areas that often become dry.
  • Use a thicker moisturizer during cold weather months.
  • Use petroleum jelly to lock in moisture and as a barrier to cold weather or dry air.
  • Wear gloves and other protective clothing when exposed to chemical irritants or harsh weather.
  • Change out of wet or sweaty clothing as soon as possible.
  • Use a humidifier to moisten indoor air during dry months.
  • Work with your doctor to keep other medical conditions like diabetes controlled.

A Word From Verywell

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

You can treat cracked skin by applying a moisturizer to soothe skin and petroleum jelly as a barrier, and by avoiding irritants to the skin. If your skin doesn’t improve or you notice signs of an infection, talk with your healthcare provider. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any home remedies for cracked skin?

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

How can you remove cracked skin from your heels?

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

What is the quickest way to treat cracked skin?

You can quickly treat dry skin by addressing and eliminating anything irritating your skin, such as harsh cleansers or soaps, hot showers, long showers, dry air, and exposure to cold weather.

Switch to warm showers of 5–10 minutes long, apply moisturizer immediately after washing, wear gloves in cold weather, use humidifiers, change out of wet clothing as soon as possible, and use gentle products.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. MedlinePlus. Psoriasis. Updated May 3, 2021.

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  5. MedlinePlus. Fungal infections. Updated May 20, 2021.

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