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How to heal dry, cracked heels, according to dermatologists

Doctors explain what causes cracked heels and what you can do to restore and protect them.
Moisturizing twice a day and exfoliating regularly using creams, lotions and ointments can treat dry feet, according to dermatologists.
Moisturizing twice a day and exfoliating regularly using creams, lotions and ointments can treat dry feet, according to dermatologists.Kara Birnbaum / NBC

Dry skin isn’t just limited to the face — it can affect other parts of the body, down to your feet. Dry, irritated heels, for example, can create uncomfortable cracks and deep, painful cuts or fissures. Though they can worsen in the wintertime due to lower humidity levels, there are several other factors that may contribute to dry heels including hot showers and harsh soaps that compromise your natural skin barrier, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. William Huang.

We spoke with board-certified dermatologists to get more information about what causes dry, cracked heels and the best ways to treat them. We also highlighted our experts’ favorite treatments to shop.

Our top picks

How we picked the best treatments for dry, cracked heels

The key to treating fissures is to exfoliate, moisturize and avoid long, hot showers and harsh fragrances, according to our experts. Below, we highlighted their key guidance about what to consider when shopping for topical treatments.

  • Look for moisturizing ingredients including petroleum jelly, glycerin, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and colloidal oatmeal, which can help restore your skin’s barrier and lock in moisture, according to dermatologists.
  • Pay attention to exfoliants that help shed excess dry skin like ammonium lactate, salicylic acid and urea.
  • Avoid fragrances or harsh soaps, which can break down your skin’s natural moisture barrier. Instead, use fragrance-free and moisturizing soaps and washes.

Best products for dry, cracked heels

Below, we compiled dermatologist-recommended moisturizing and exfoliating products to help treat dry, cracked heels year-round.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

“This ointment contains petrolatum and glycerin, which work together to hydrate and protect dry, cracked skin,” says Dr. Annie Chiu, a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in California. Formulated for sensitive skin, you can use this preservative- and fragrance-free ointment as a foot cream, lip moisturizer, hand cream, minor wound treatment and more.

Cerave Healing Ointment

Dermatologists love this noncomedogenic formula because it’s non-irritating. It’s enriched with ceramides to restore your skin’s barrier and contains hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that helps skin retain moisture.

O'Keeffe's for Healthy Feet Foot Cream

If ointments feel too thick on the skin, both Huang and Jaber recommended this thick foot cream from O’Keeffe’s. The formula contains allantoin, a hydrating ingredient that penetrates thick, rough skin and creates a protective layer of moisture on the skin, according to the brand.

Amlactin Foot Repair Cream Therapy

Huang also recommended this Amlactin cream, which is formulated with 15% lactic acid that gently exfoliates and removes dead skin cells. In addition to smoothing, this cream softens calluses and improves splitting and cracking heels, according to the brand. It has a non-greasy and fragrance-free formula, which you can apply twice a day, as detailed on the brand's website.

Gold Bond Ultimate Healing Foot Cream

“This cream contains a blend of vitamins A, C, and E as well as aloe vera to hydrate and soothe dry, cracked skin,” Chiu says. This foot cream from Gold Bond locks in up to 24 hours of moisture and has a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and non-greasy formula, according to the brand.

Eucerin Roughness Relief Spot Treatment

Dr. Barry Goldman, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Goldman Dermatology in New York City, says this spot treatment has a high concentration of urea (30%) that exfoliates the skin along with ceramides that provide a good amount of moisture. It’s also fragrance-free and contains lactic acid, which works in conjunction with the urea to remove dead cells, according to Eucerin.

Cerave Renewing Foot Cream

Goldman says this cream is a great treatment “because it has salicylic acid to loosen the dead skin and hyaluronic acid to draw in moisture.” The formula is free of fragrances and has the National Eczema Association seal of approval making it suitable for sensitive skin.

Kerasal Intensive Foot Repair Ointment

Both Chiu and Jaber recommended this ointment from Kerasal. “It contains salicylic acid and urea, which work to exfoliate and soften rough, dry skin on the heels,” Chiu says. By loosening dead cells, moisturizing ingredients like petrolatum can better penetrate the skin, according to the brand.

Aveeno Cica Repairing Foot Mask

Dr. Nkem Ugonabo, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City, recommended this Aveeno mask that is shaped like a “slipper” so you can easily slip it on and off. It even includes a fastening strap to keep it in place for the brand’s recommended 10 minutes. The fragrance-free formula contains shea butter and prebiotic oat, which are both expert-recommended ingredients that moisturize and nourish the skin.

New-Skin Liquid Bandage

“If you have painful cracks in your feet, a liquid bandaid can be very helpful to improve the pain and allow the area to heal,” Jaber says. He recommended these liquid bandages from New-Skin, which create a tough barrier on cracks and cuts to prevent infection and speed up the healing process. The bandages are waterproof and flexible, and dry clear so they can match your skin tone, according to the brand.

What causes dry, cracked heels?

Dry, cracked heels are very common and can occur at any time of the year. They’re primarily caused by a lack of moisture in the skin or a disruption of the skin barrier, our experts told us. They highlighted a few main causes below:

  • Lack of moisture is the most common cause. “When the skin on the heels becomes too dry, it can crack and split,” says Chiu. This may be due to low-humidity environments as well as prolonged hot showers.
  • Standing or walking for long periods of time, which creates pressure on your feet that can cause the skin to dry out and crack.
  • Medical and skin conditions like eczema, diabetes, psoriasis and athlete's foot. Increased weight and added pressure on the heel can also lead to dry skin in the area, according to Huang.
  • Wearing open-back shoes that expose the heels. Shoes that are too tight can also cause heel spurs, according to Goldman.
  • Using harsh, fragrant soaps and ingredients. “Harsh soaps can break down your natural skin barrier, so switch to a non-fragranced, moisturizing liquid cleanser to help,” Huang says.
  • Age can make your skin — including your feet — thinner, less elastic and drier over time as it produces less natural oils, according to Jaber.

Cracks may cause wounds that can easily get infected if not treated. If you happen to have a compromised immune system or diabetes, an infection can become a serious health risk, Jaber says.

How to treat dry, cracked heels

When it comes to dry heels, prevention is key: When the weather gets colder, a room humidifier may help, according to Huang. Instead of long, hot showers opt for short, warm showers or baths with non-fragranced, moisturizing products that can repair your skin’s moisture barrier.

Below, experts noted a few treatments to keep in mind.

Keep your feet clean and moisturized

Experts recommended washing your feet with non-foaming hydrating cleansers (preferably with a cream or milk consistency) to keep the skin from drying out. After your bath or shower, you should apply a moisturizer right away to help retain some of the water on your skin; Goldman says you should moisturize your heels at least twice a day.

Huang recommended using products that contain moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and colloidal oatmeal to help lock in moisture and restore your natural skin barrier. If you’re relieving pain and inflammation, Chiu recommended aloe vera — a natural anti-inflammatory that soothes dry, cracked skin — and vitamin E, an antioxidant that promotes healthy cell growth and protects the skin from damage.

After moisturizing and exfoliating (more on that below), “you should apply a thick, occlusive emollient such as petroleum jelly to lock in moisture — I recommend applying right before bed and under cotton socks,” Ugonabo says. Jaber recommended locking in moisture with socks that are breathable and made from either natural cotton or wool, which are often less irritating than synthetic materials.

Slough off dead skin

Multiple experts recommended soaking your feet in warm water for 15 minutes and gently scrubbing with a loofah, pumice stone or foot file. “This will help remove dead skin cells and make it easier for moisturizers to penetrate the skin,” says Chiu. Huang recommended following that with moisturizers that contain exfoliating ingredients like ammonium lactate, salicylic acid and urea.

Seal deep cracks

“Liquid bandages can be very helpful to seal up cracks,” Ugonabo says. They can also ease the pain of walking on torn skin while keeping the wounds clean.

Meet our experts

At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

  • Dr. William Huang is a board-certified dermatologist and professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology.
  • Dr. Samer Jaber is a board-certified dermatologist at Washington Square Dermatology in New York City.
  • Dr. Annie Chiu is a board-certified cosmetic and general dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in North Redondo Beach, California.
  • Dr. Barry Goldman is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Goldman Dermatology in New York City.
  • Dr. Nkem Ugonabo is a board-certified dermatologist at Union Derm in New York City.

Why trust Select?

Mili Godio is an editor at Select who has covered a variety of skin care topics, including products for rosacea, keratosis pilaris and cystic acne. For this article, Godio spoke to five dermatologists to narrow down the best treatments for dry, cracked heels, and highlighted their recommendations for the best products to consider.

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