What to Know About Cracked Heels

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on February 14, 2023
4 min read

Cracked heels may be unsightly, but they usually don't cause serious issues. Occasionally, severely cracked heels can get infected and lead to a skin infection called cellulitis. Heel fissures, or cracked heels, happen when the skin on the bottom of your heel becomes hard and dry. No matter what the cause of your cracked heels, there are steps you can take to treat them. There are also ways to keep your heels from cracking in the first place.

When the skin around your heels becomes dry and thick, it can be the start of cracked heels. Extra pressure on the fat pad of your heels can cause dry, thick skin to form cracks, or heel fissures. While anyone can develop heel fissures, some things make them more likely, including:

  • Wearing open-heeled footwear such as sandals
  • Taking hot baths or showers
  • Using harsh soaps
  • Having cold, dry skin
  • Dry, cold weather
  • Standing for long periods

Some medical conditions can lead to cracked heels, as well. These include:

  • Hypothyroidism, in which your thyroid doesn't make enough of certain hormones
  • Juvenile plantar dermatosis, a skin condition in young children
  • Sjögren's syndrome, a chronic condition that prevents your body from making enough moisture
  • Athlete's foot, a fungal infection
  • Heel spurs, bone protrusions on the bottom of your heel

Most cases of cracked heels can be treated at home by soaking your feet, then moisturizing them at least twice a day. Choose thick creams that have skin softeners in them.  You can repair cracked heels using these steps:

  • Rest your feet in soapy water for 20 minutes.
  • Gently scrub with a loofah or pumice stone to remove the thick, hard skin on your heels.
  • Dry your feet thoroughly.
  • Apply a heavy moisturizer, such as petroleum jelly, to your dry feet.
  • Put on a pair of thick socks to keep the moisturizer in place.

Look for labels that say things like:

  • Urea
  • Salicylic acid
  • Alpha-hydroxy acid
  • Saccharide isomerate
  • Lactic acid 

All of these ingredients help soften skin while removing dead skin. Note that these ingredients might cause some stinging or irritation.

If your heels are severely cracked or don’t improve after you’ve treated them for a week, talk to your doctor. You may need treatment from a podiatrist, a doctor who specializes in feet, ankle, and lower leg conditions. Possible treatment options include:

Strapping. This involves using a bandage or dressings around the heel to keep your skin from moving around.

Debridement. In this procedure, a medical professional cuts away the thick, hard skin on your heels. Don’t try to do this yourself. You may cut away too much skin, which could cause an infection.

Prescription medicines. Your doctor may give you a prescription for a stronger cream than you can buy over-the-counter. Prescription-strength creams usually contain a higher percentage of active ingredients like urea or salicylic acid.

Skin glue. Your doctor may use a glue designed for use on skin to hold the edges of the heel fissures together. This can allow them to heal.

Shoe inserts. Insoles in your shoes may provide better support by redistributing the weight on your heel. This can prevent the fat pad from expanding sideways and cracking your heels.

Check your feet daily. This is particularly important if you have diabetes. Checking your feet every day will help you find problems before they become serious. Look for:

  • Swelling
  • Cuts
  • Athlete's foot
  • Warm spots

Wash your feet every day. Use warm water to wash your feet. Dry them well, making sure you get between your toes because the skin there tends to stay wet. Then apply cornstarch or talcum powder between your toes. This will keep the skin dry and help prevent infection.

Trim your toenails. If your toenails need to be cut, trim them straight across. Then file them down gently with an emery board. This will help prevent ingrown toenails.

Wear supportive footwear. Start with clean, lightly padded socks that fit well. Wear shoes that fit and support your feet. Shop for shoes at the end of the day, since feet tend to swell as the day goes on.

Protect your feet from temperature extremes. Make sure you wear shoes at the beach and on hot pavement. Use sunscreen to protect exposed areas of your feet. If your feet get cold at night, wear socks to bed. In the winter, wear lined waterproof boots to keep your feet warm and dry.