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For many people, cracked skin appears or gets worse during the winter, when dry air can lead to dryness on the hands, lips, or feet.
Sometimes cracked skin occurs due to a skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, or because the skin came into contact with an irritating substance.
Cracked skin can also be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. For example, people living with diabetes may notice cracked skin on their soles.
In this article, we will cover some common causes of cracked skin on hands, feet, and lips plus treatments and home remedies that may help.
What is cracked skin?
According to the American Association of Dermatology (AAD), the fissures, or cuts, that mark cracked skin typically occur when a person’s skin is dry or irritated. Dry and cracked skin can:
Some people may feel unpleasant sensations when applying any product to cracked skin. Their skin may also feel more sensitive to water temperature and household cleaning products.
Cracked skin can appear on any part of the body, but it is especially noticeable on exposed areas, such as the hands.
Cracked skin on the hands, feet, and lips can develop for a variety of reasons.
The AAD note that harsh winter temperatures and wind can irritate the skin. When air humidity drops, the skin can become dry and start to crack.
In cold or dry weather, many people also develop dry and cracked lips. Licking, biting, and picking can make cracked lips worse.
Contact dermatitis is an itchy, dry skin rash that develops when a person comes into contact with a specific substance. This may occur because a person has an allergy, or because the substance is toxic or irritating.
For example, someone with a latex allergy may develop contact dermatitis while wearing latex gloves. During the flu season, frequent hand washing can also cause dryness, itchiness, or cracking. This also applies to hand washing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Find out more about frequent hand washing for people with skin conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
People with eczema, or atopic dermatitis, have dry and itchy skin. The skin may look red and inflamed. Often, scratching will make the rash worse.
Eczema occurs when the skin barrier allows too much moisture to escape. The lack of moisture leads to dryness and, sometimes, cracked skin. It is not always clear what causes eczema, but it can run in families.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that affects the skin. People with psoriasis have patches of extremely dry skin, typically on the scalp, trunk, and around the joints. However, patches can appear anywhere on the body. Some people with psoriasis also experience pain.
Athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis, is an infection of the feet caused by ringworm. Ringworm is a type of fungus. Symptoms of athlete’s foot include:
- a rash between the toes
- skin peeling
- cracking of the skin
People are more likely to get athlete’s foot if they spend a lot of time in water, sweat a lot, or wear shoes that do not allow the skin to breathe.
People living with diabetes may develop problems with their feet. This includes dry or cracked skin.
Due to changes in their nervous system, people with diabetes have feet that sweat less. While too much moisture is a risk factor for athlete’s foot, too little can make the skin dry, causing fissures.
As some people cannot see the soles of their feet, they must rely on a partner or their doctor to check them. Cracked skin on the feet can go unnoticed until the person develops an infection or a painful skin ulcer.
The treatment a person tries will depend on the cause and location of their cracked skin.
For cracking that occurs in cold weather or as a result of frequent hand washing, The AAD recommend keeping the skin hydrated. A person can do this by applying fragrance- and dye-free hand cream or ointment immediately after washing the hands.
When choosing a moisturizer for cracked skin, people should look for these beneficial ingredients:
- olive oil
- jojoba oil
- shea butter
- lactic acid
- hyaluronic acid
- mineral oil
As alcohol-based hand sanitizers can also cause dryness, dermatologists also recommend applying moisturizer after using them.
People with eczema and psoriasis also benefit from moisturizers to prevent flare-ups and protect the skin. However, they may require additional treatments to control flare-ups. This can include:
- corticosteroid creams
- calcineurin inhibitors
- UV light therapy
If the skin has become infected, a doctor may also prescribe antibiotic ointment or tablets.
According to one article, people with athlete’s foot may need to change their footwear or apply talc to prevent sweating. They may also need to use antifungal products to treat ringworm.
An article in the International Journal of Nursing Studies suggests that a lack of blood flow in the feet can contribute to cracked skin in people with diabetes. Managing blood flow to the feet by wearing compression stockings may help.
To prevent cracked skin from getting worse, people should avoid washing their hands with hot water. Hot baths and showers can worsen dry or cracked skin. Dermatologists recommend:
- using warm rather than hot water
- closing the door of the bathroom to lock in moisture
- limiting time in the shower to a maximum of 10 minutes
- washing with a small quantity of a gentle fragrance-free cleanser
- drying the skin by blotting, not rubbing
- applying moisturizer immediately after blotting
Doctors also recommend that people wear gloves to protect their hands when:
- going outside in the winter
- performing tasks that get the hands wet
- using harsh chemicals, degreasers, and other substances
Some dermatologists recommend using a humidifier in the house if the air is dry. According to the AAD, humidifiers may also help to treat dry lips.
Lip balms can also help soothe dry or cracked lips. However, some lip balms may cause burning or stinging due to their ingredients. It is important to choose a nonirritating lip balm if you have cracked lips.
Certain fabrics can irritate dry skin. It may help to wear smooth, breathable fabrics, such as cotton or silk, and to avoid textured materials, such as wool. Using hypoallergenic laundry detergents and fabric softeners may also help to reduce irritation.
People with cracked skin are more prone to infections because the skin barrier is broken. Bacteria and other germs can get inside the skin and cause an infection.
People who notice pain, redness, inflammation or pus at the site of the fissure must see a doctor. Fissures can also start to bleed.
People living with diabetes have poor circulation in their feet and may have dysfunctions in their nervous system. These conditions can cause dry skin and cracks that are slow to heal.
Sometimes fissures on the soles of the feet can develop into painful ulcers, which can make it challenging for people to stand or walk. According to one article, some people with diabetes may require amputation if their ulcers become severe.
When to see a doctor
If moisturizing frequently and avoiding behaviors that cause cracked skin do not help, a person should speak with a doctor. The doctor can check for any underlying conditions.
A pharmacist can help a person choose an appropriate cream or ointment to soothe cracked hands and feet.
People who have signs of complications from cracked skin must also speak with a doctor. These signs include skin that is:
People with diabetes should see a doctor if they develop ulcers from cracked skin on the soles of the feet. Ulcers can make it difficult to walk and require medical attention.
Cracked skin on hands and feet is common in winter, but can also occur with certain skin conditions, such as eczema and athlete’s foot. To prevent cracked skin, people should avoid using hot water and harsh chemicals, and moisturize after washing.
People with skin conditions that lead to cracked skin may require medication to treat the underlying cause. If moisturizing frequently and avoiding triggers does not help, a person should speak to their doctor.
Some of the products in this article are available to purchase in pharmacies or online:
- dry skin cream
- eczema cream
- psoriasis cream
- lip balms
- athlete’s foot products
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