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What *actually* causes cracked heels—feet’s biggest summer foe


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Photo: Getty Images/Sam Edwards

I spend a lot of time looking at women’s feet. It’s not because I have a foot fetish, per se, but as a style editor, I am fixated on what’s going on below your ankles in the name of trend spotting. Lately, aside from seeing more and more chunky sneakers and noticing that nail polish lasts way longer on toes than hands, I’ve also come to realize that many women seem to be walking around with cracked heels—like the kind even a Baby Foot treatment can’t correct.

Because it’s sandal season, the foot condition is now front of mind, and I wanted to get to the, ahem, bottom of it. So, I reached out to a board-certified dermatologist for answers.

“The technical name for cracking heels and feet is called keratoderma,” explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It’s telltale sign is a thickening of the skin (typically on the soles or palms), and there are several things that can cause the condition.

If it starts happening during childhood, it’s often genetic, but as an adult, it could have more to do with your surroundings than your genes. “In some cases, people may develop it later in life as a result of hormonal changes or environmental stressors,” says Dr. Zeichner. However, chronic skin conditions can put you more at risk, too. “People may also develop dry, cracked heels in conditions like eczema and psoriasis,” Dr. Zeichner tells me.

While it’s important to figure out what’s causing your dry, cracked heels for future reference, once they’re in a certain condition, you really only have a single path forward. “When the heels are cracked and peeling, it means that the skin barrier is disrupted, so the skin loses hydration, becomes inflamed, and is at an increased risk of developing infections,” says Dr. Zeichner. “Good skin care can help minimize this or prevent it from developing in some cases.”

More on that: The best way to deal is by keeping your heels clean and moisturized. Wash your feet with a gentle cleanser that’ll knock out bacteria without stripping feet such as Dr. Bronners Pure Castile Liquid Soap ($18) and moisturize them with a lotion that includes ingredients such as colloidal oatmeal (AKA oatmeal suspended in aqua) such as Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($8) —it’s popular in products made to soothe dry skin. As a final step, seal all of the skin-loving and moisture-boosting ingredients into your heels with a super-rich balm such as Honest Organic All Purpose Balm ($13), which helps to form an occlusive barrier so none of the good stuff can escape.

And should none of the above leave you well heeled? “Make sure to visit a board-certified dermatologist for professional treatment,” advises Dr. Zeichner. They’ll be able to help you put your best foot forward.

It’s Feet Week here at Well+Good! Here’s what pedicurists say are the most-common issues they see on people’s feet—plus, how to keep your sneakers from smelling in summer. 

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