Some women will do it until they bleed, and can no longer walk without pain. While others may just feel ashamed during a pedicure or when wearing sexy, sling-back sandals. We are talking about dry, cracked heels and the women (or men) who pick at them.
“It is one of those secret addictions or compulsions,” says Suzanne M. Levine, DPM, a podiatrist at the Institute Beauté in New York City. “We can see rips and tears that don’t coincide with blisters or seem to be related to increased pressure on the heel,” she says.
And yes, it’s a cosmetic concern, but this habit can also increase risk for infections and may be a red flag for more serious psychiatric issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, she says. (In the latter case, it is known as dermatillomania or compulsive skin picking.)
Understanding Cracked Heels
Cracked heels are caused by dry skin, and this is often made worse when, and if, the skin around the rim of the heel is thick (callus). This can occur if you are overweight which increases the pressure on the normal fat pad under your heel or if you wear open-back shoes that permit the fat under your heel to expand sideways and increases the pressure to ‘crack.’ Other risks may include standing on your feet all day as well as skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema.
Healing your heels starts with exfoliating your dry, cracked heels daily, she says. Products such as Head to Toe Beauty® Glycolic 20% Foot Pads or Head to Toe Beauty Glycolic Foot Cream 20% (both $55) contain glycolic acid and potent antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and green tea, and help slough off dead skin.
Use a pumice stone to aid the exfoliating process while in the shower or bath, she says. The next step is to moisturize your heels. Any product with urea will work, Levine says. Found naturally in the skin, urea is drawn to water and helps pull moisture it in to dry, scaly skin. Her favorite is Head to Toe Beauty® Foot Humectants ($55). “This spray softens and dissolves dry, thickened skin and helps restore lost moisture beneath the skin surface.” she says.
Other foot moisturizers include Udderly SMOOth Shea Butter Foot Cream moisturizer or Udderly SMOOth® Foot Cream for Dry Feet (both under $10). An all-in-one option is Glytone’s Ultra Heel and Elbow Pamper Kit ($72), which comprises a body wash, cream, pumice stone and pair of cozy socks
Applying old-school, no-frills petroleum jelly to your dogs, and covering them with soft cotton socks before you go to bed each night helps lock in moisture too, she says. There are times when Levine has to bring out the big guns – soft tissue fillers – to treat severely cracked heels. “If cracks and fissures in the heel are that deep, I may use hyaluronic-acid based fillers such as Juvederm or Perlane,” Levine says.
This is the exception, not the rule. For people who need more intensive therapy, but aren’t ready for fillers, there is Head to Toe Beauty® Recovery Complex ($55), which helps gives a little extra protection after exfoliation.
Whatever the cause of your dry, cracked heels, picking at it makes it way worse, Levine says. “You want to moisturize excessively and exfoliate your heels, so dead skin doesn’t build up,” she says. Heel pickers should avoid manual exfoliating products or foot files at all costs because these products will likely make things worse, not better.
Infection is also a risk, especially if you use nail scissors or clippers to jumpstart the picking or peeling process, she says. Soothe your achy, red heels in epsom salts and warm water, and apply antibacterial ointments such as Neosporin with pain relief to kill any bacteria and get rid of that sting, she says.
Boston-based psychologist, Ted A. Grossbart, PhD, sees people after some home care measures have failed . “One in six people are skin pickers,” he says. “We are talking hidden epidemic here, and when it comes to heels, the ‘yuck factor’ is a big reason that people don’t talk about it.” By the time people see Grossbart, they have often been there, done that in terms of moisturization and exfoliation. “There is no official level of picking that says ‘you have crossed the line’ ,” he says.
He often suggests some behaviorial strategies to help stop the picking and complement the other skin care remedies. Placing Band Aids on key-picking fingers ( instead of your heel) may be enough to stop you in your tracks when the urge kicks in, he says. “They serve as a stop sign.”
There is no simple solution for most compulsive skin pickers, but “if you can find ten things that work 10%, you are in good shape,” he says. These may include moisturizers and exfoliants as well as Band-Aids or a short-course of psychotherapy aimed at changing your behaviors.