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Cracked skin can happen when your skin barrier is compromised. Usually, it’s a symptom of dry and irritated skin, but there are many possible causes.

Your feet, hands, and lips may be especially prone to cracking. However, depending on the cause, cracked skin can develop in other areas, too.

Most causes of skin cracking can be managed with home remedies. But if your cracked skin is severe, or if you have any complications, it’s best to see a doctor.

Let’s look at the various causes of cracked skin, along with ways to find relief.

Depending on the cause, cracked skin may be accompanied with a variety of other symptoms. Paying attention to these symptoms may help pinpoint the cause.

Dry skin

Dry skin, or xerosis, is the most common cause of cracked skin.

In smooth and hydrated skin, natural oils prevent the skin from drying out by retaining moisture. But if your skin doesn’t have enough oil, it loses moisture. This makes your skin dry out and shrink, which can lead to cracking.

Dry skin may be caused by:

  • Cold weather. In the winter, low humidity and temperature can dry out your skin. Indoor heating also decreases the humidity in your home.
  • Chemical irritants. Many products like dish soap and laundry detergent can contain harsh chemicals. These substances can damage your skin’s barrier and cause dryness.
  • Hot water. The hot water from showers or washing dishes can reduce your skin’s moisture.
  • Medication. Dryness may be a side effect of some drugs, like topical retinoids.
  • Excess moisture. When your skin is constantly exposed to moisture, it can actually cause your skin to become irritated and dry out. This can happen to your feet after wearing sweaty socks for too long. This is because water is an irritant to the skin.

Eczema

Eczema is a skin condition that causes redness and itching. It’s also known as atopic dermatitis. It can occur anywhere on the body, but it most often affects the face, hands, and inner arm folds and behind the knees.

The condition makes the skin appear very dry, which can lead to cracking. Other symptoms of eczema include:

  • peeling
  • flaking
  • blisters
  • intense itching
  • rough, scaly patches

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a disorder of immune dysfunction that makes skin cells grow too fast. As the extra cells build up, the skin becomes scaly. Inflammation also plays a big part.

The rapid accumulation of cells can lead to dryness and cracking, along with:

  • red patches
  • silvery white scales
  • itching, in some cases

These symptoms can develop anywhere, but they often appear on the:

  • scalp
  • elbows
  • knees
  • lower back

Diabetic neuropathy

Cracked heels are a common complication of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The condition can lead to diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage due to diabetes.

In diabetic neuropathy, your nerves can’t properly control the skin’s moisture. This can lead to dryness and cracking, especially on the feet.

Other symptoms of diabetic neuropathy include:

  • numbness in feet or hands
  • pain in feet, legs, or hands
  • foot calluses
  • ankle weakness

People with diabetes are prone to skin infections. In many cases, dryness on the feet can be a result of athlete’s foot, or tinea pedis.

Athlete’s foot

Another cause of cracked feet is athlete’s foot. This is a skin infection caused by a fungus.

The infection, which usually develops between the toes or on the bottom of the feet, can cause cracked skin. Other symptoms include:

  • redness
  • flaking
  • swelling
  • itching

Athlete’s foot often affects people who have constantly damp feet, such as swimmers and runners. It’s also common in people with diabetes.

Chapped lips

When your lips become very dry or irritated, they can crack, flake, and in some cases, became swollen, itchy, or sore.

Inflammation or dryness on the lips can occur for several reasons. Some of the most common reasons for cracked lips include:

  • frequent lip licking
  • cold weather
  • exposure to the wind
  • an allergic reaction to a lip balm or other product

Keratolysis exfoliativa

Keratolysis exfoliativa causes peeling on the hands and feet. It usually affects the palms, but it can show up on the soles of your feet, too.

The skin loses its natural barrier as the top layer peels off. This can lead to dryness and cracking.

Other symptoms include:

  • air-filled blisters
  • redness

There are several different ways that you can treat your cracked skin at home if the condition isn’t too severe. Depending on the cause and location of your cracked skin, you may want to try one of these self-care treatments.

Moisturizing ointment or cream

Since dry skin can cause or worsen cracking, it’s important to keep your skin well hydrated. You can do this by frequently applying moisturizer.

Try to use ointments and creams. These products tend to be more effective because they have the ability to help your skin retain moisture.

You may want to consider the following products that can be especially helpful for treating dry, cracked skin:

You can also try products with ingredients like:

Reapply the moisturizer two to three times a day, including immediately after bathing. Focus on the driest parts of your body.

Petroleum jelly

Petroleum jelly treats cracks by sealing and protecting your skin. The jelly has the ability to lock in moisture, which helps the cracked skin heal.

To use this treatment:

  1. Apply petroleum jelly on the areas where your skin is cracked.
  2. Cover the area with a bandage or gauze. If you’re treating cracked heels, wear socks.
  3. Repeat three times a day as well as immediately after bathing.

Petroleum jelly is particularly excellent for dry lips. Before using this product, be sure to read the ingredients list to make sure it doesn’t include anything you’re allergic to.

Topical hydrocortisone cream

A topical hydrocortisone cream can be a good option for cracked skin that has red patches or itching. This type of cream contains corticosteroids, which reduce irritation and swelling.

Hydrocortisone creams are available in different strengths. The mildest strengths are available as over-the-counter (OTC) treatments that you can buy at your local drugstore. You’ll need a prescription from your doctor for a stronger hydrocortisone cream.

When using hydrocortisone, follow the package’s directions. You can also combine this treatment with a moisturizer. Apply the hydrocortisone cream first and add the moisturizer on top.

Before using topical hydrocortisone cream, it’s best to talk to your dermatologist or healthcare provider to see if it’ll help with your particular condition.

Liquid bandage

A liquid skin bandage can treat deeper skin cracks. This OTC treatment works by holding the cracked skin together, which encourages healing.

To apply a liquid bandage, read the directions on the packaging. Most liquid bandages involve applying the liquid with a small brush. The liquid will dry and seal the skin.

Since the liquid bandage needs to stick to your skin, avoid using it with other creams or ointments.

Exfoliation

Gentle exfoliation can remove dead, dry cells from the surface of your skin. This remedy is most often recommended for cracked feet and heels.

To exfoliate your feet:

  1. Soak your feet in water for 20 minutes.
  2. Use a loofah or pumice stone to gently scrub away the dry skin.
  3. Pat dry and apply a moisturizer.
  4. Exfoliate once or twice a week, to start.

Antifungal medication

If you think you have athlete’s foot, you can purchase a topical fungal treatment, like terbinafine (Lamisil), and use it on your feet.

If your cracked skin doesn’t get better with self-care or home remedies, it can lead to other problems. Possible complications include:

  • bleeding
  • deeper skin damage
  • scarring
  • bacterial infections, like cellulitis
  • pain while walking or standing

Mild cases of cracked skin can be treated at home. But if your cracked skin doesn’t get better after 2 weeks of treatment, or if it gets worse, be sure to see your doctor.

You should also seek medical attention if you have cracked skin that’s:

  • bleeding
  • filled with pus
  • becoming redder or more irritated
  • intensely itchy
  • accompanied with a fever

In many cases, cracked skin is caused by skin that’s extremely dry, inflamed, or irritated. This happens when your skin loses so much moisture that it breaks down. Most people develop cracked skin on their feet, hands, and lips, but it can affect any part of your body.

You can usually treat cracked skin with remedies like petroleum jelly, moisturizing creams, mild hydrocortisone creams, and liquid bandages. But if the cracking doesn’t get better, or if you have signs of an infection, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible.