How Diabetes Can Aggravate Common Skin Issues

Medically Reviewed by Michael Dansinger, MD on December 15, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

When you have diabetes, take extra care of your skin, since it can be affected by the condition in unexpected ways. 

Here's help for several issues, from itching and dryness to wrinkles.

Dry Skin

If you have dry skin, diabetes can make it worse. That's because high blood sugar can make you have to pee often, which dehydrates you.

Your skin can also get dry if the nerves, especially those in your legs and feet, don't get the message to keep skin soft and moist. That can happen due to damage to your nerves, also called diabetic neuropathy.

Dry skin can become red and sore. Because it can be easily injured and have a harder time healing, use moisturizing lotion often.

Dry weather or very hot or cold temperatures also parch your skin. Winter is especially risky for people with diabetes, says Fred Williams, MD, a clinical endocrinologist in Louisville, KY. “Humidity is lower, and your skin and heels can peel or crack,” he says.

Germs can come in through the cracks of dry skin. An infection can spread quickly, he says.

Minor Injuries and Infection

Be watchful and proactive to protect your skin.

"Check your body for small wounds every day, especially the bottoms of your feet where you may not feel or notice a cut or scrape,” Williams says.

If your diabetes isn't well-controlled, treating wounds is even more important. “People who are not hitting their glucose [blood sugar] goals have poorer wound healing. They are at higher risk for skin infections,” he says.

Bacteria like staph and fungi like yeast love high levels of blood sugar. High levels also make your immune cells that fight infection more sluggish. It’s harder for them to fend off infection than for people who have good control of their blood sugar.

That's why you should carefully watch for and treat acne, razor burn, or other small scrapes, scratches, and cuts. Even minor ones might heal slowly. Diabetes causes poor blood flow and slower healing, which can turn a small cut into a dangerous infection risk.

Ronnie Oller, 67, has type 1 diabetes and neuropathy, a diabetes complication that causes her to have poor feeling in her arms and legs.

“So I may not even notice a wound,” she says. “I don’t even know the pain I may have.”

Because her infection risk is very high if she gets any opening in her skin, she says she is super-careful.

“If a glass breaks in the kitchen, I am not allowed back into the house until it’s all swept up,” she says.

That kind of caution is important for many people with diabetes. If you don’t take good care of a minor skin condition, it could turn into a severe problem with serious consequences (like a very bad infection or needing to have part or all of a limb surgically removed).

Oller has lost two thumbnails and three toenails after getting infections from small cuts. “If you have diabetes, you really have to be careful,” she says.


Extra Skin

Have extra skin? That can be common when you have diabetes. Insulin acts like a growth hormone, causing skin tags to grow, as well as rubeosis (red face), rosacea, and yellow skin.

If you notice changes in your skin, let your doctor know.

Wrinkles and Skin Appearance

Fine lines and wrinkles can look worse when you have diabetes. The condition can have a drying effect. That sucks out moisture, and skin loses some of its plumpness, making wrinkles seem deeper. Also, sometimes diabetes can make blood vessels more visible and can cause skin spots.

The best way to avoid this? Keep your blood sugar under control.

WebMD Feature



Fred Williams, MD, Endocrine and Diabetes Associates, Louisville, KY.

Ronnie Oller, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

American Diabetes Association: “Foot Care.”

Diabetes UK: “Myths About Diabetes.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Prevent diabetes problems: Keep your feet healthy.”

Houston Methodist Multidisciplinary Limb Center: “Conditions and Treatments: Diabetic Foot Wounds.”

Joslin Diabetes Center: “Good Skin Care and Diabetes.”

NIH: “Diabetes insipidus – Nephrogenic.”

Diabetes Association: “Hyperosmolar Hyperglycemic Nonketotic Syndrome (HHNS).”

MedicineNet: “Insulin resistance.”

Harvard Health: “Why your face ages and what you can do.”

American Diabetes Association: “Skin Complications.”

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