Cracked Skin: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and More
This article discusses causes of cracked skin and their symptoms and treatment. It also explains when to seek medical help and possible complications of cracked skin, and answers some frequently asked questions.
When the skin is dry or irritated, it can become fragile, which may lead to cracked skin.
Dry skin can also be itchy, leading someone to scratch and potentially cause cracking and broken skin.
There are many possible causes of dry skin, including:
- dehydration, or loss of water and skin oils
- pressure or weight on the skin
- overexposure to water
- exposure to harsh or irritating chemicals
- friction on the skin
- environmental conditions, such as:
- temperature changes
- cold or dry weather
- heating and air conditioning
- exposure to sunlight
Chapped lips and other cracked skin symptoms may also occur where the skin is more sensitive, such as on the face and eyes.
Dry skin can also be a symptom of health conditions that affect the skin.
Eczema, or dermatitis, refers to a group of skin conditions that cause rashes, itching, and other symptoms of irritated skin. Eczema may also cause cracked skin due to the dryness it can cause, in addition to symptoms such as:
- skin discoloration
- broken skin that bleeds or oozes fluid
You may notice irritation in response to certain triggers, such as skin contact with an allergen or irritating substance. This is known as contact dermatitis.
Other factors that may contribute to the development of eczema include:
- immune function
- other skin conditions
- environmental conditions and pollution, such as from smoke
- tight or irritating clothing
Psoriasis is a skin condition that occurs as a result of inflammation and immune dysfunction. It causes the skin to replace its cells too quickly, leading to a buildup of skin tissue that becomes irritated and scaly.
Psoriasis may also cause dry lesions on the skin that are covered in scales.
The affected skin may be itchy or sore, leading to dry and cracked skin. Severe cases of psoriasis may also cause the skin around the joints to crack and possibly bleed.
On many skin tones, psoriasis can appear pink or reddish, with white or silvery scales. Areas of affected medium to dark skin can also sometimes appear purple or brown with gray scaling.
Some skin infections may cause dry and cracked skin.
Athlete’s foot, or Tinea pedis, refers to a fungal infection of the skin or nails. It can occur due to infection from a variety of different fungi, such as ringworm.
Fissures or cracked skin on the foot or between the toes are typical symptoms of athlete’s foot. Other symptoms include redness or other discoloration, and itching.
Other kinds of infections, such as bacterial or parasitic infections, may also cause dry skin. Contact your doctor promptly if you notice dry or cracked skin alongside other symptoms of infection. Symptoms may include:
- skin discoloration
Diabetes is a condition that affects how the body manages insulin, a hormone that helps process the conversion of food into energy.
It can cause additional complications, including affecting the skin. Research suggests that excessively dry skin is one of the most common skin complications of people with diabetes.
This dry skin can present as scaling, rough, or cracked skin.
Cracked skin can occur with diabetes for many reasons. Here are some explanations on how the conditions are related:
- Diabetes can cause itching or dry rashes that may lead to cracked skin.
- People with diabetes may be more prone to infections and itching.
- Diabetes can affect how much a person sweats; too little sweat can cause dryness, while too much can cause skin irritation.
- Complications of diabetes such as diabetic neuropathy can impact nerve function and may cause further skin irritation.
The skin is a large organ that has many functions. It also interacts with many other organs and bodily systems to protect and regulate health.
As a result, there are many additional conditions and factors that may affect skin health and lead to dry and cracked skin. These conditions and factors can include:
- certain medications
- other skin conditions, such as:
- keratolysis exfoliativa
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- hormonal imbalances or changes, including during pregnancy and menopause
- alcohol or drug misuse
- chronic conditions, such as:
- Crohn’s disease
Broken skin and wounds, including cracked skin and fissures, can develop infections. Severe or deep infections that do not receive effective treatment can spread to the blood and other body areas. This can lead to complications such as:
- permanent damage or impaired function of other bodily systems from the spread of infection
Sepsis and cellulitis can be life threatening. While not all infections will be severe, it is important to keep cracked skin clean and follow your doctor’s suggested treatment plan. Without effective treatment of the underlying cause, further complications and damage may also occur.
It is advisable to contact your doctor promptly if:
- you notice cracked skin alongside additional symptoms of illness
- your symptoms of dry skin do not improve with at-home care
- you develop fissures
- your skin symptoms worsen, do not heal within a few days, or come back after improving
- your symptoms affect your quality of life and comfort
Seek emergency medical care if you develop signs of infection, such as:
- discoloration or warmth to the skin
- red or discolored streaking around broken skin
- fever or chills
- confusion or changes in consciousness, even for a brief moment
- severe pain
To treat cracked skin, your doctor will recommend a tailored treatment plan for your condition and circumstances. This can include at-home care methods, clinical treatments, or a combination of the two treatment methods.
Home remedies for cracked skin can include:
- keeping the area and any broken skin clean
- avoiding scratching and any other unnecessary touching
- using over-the-counter (OTC) products, such as:
- emollients or moisturizers
- hydrocortisone creams
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
- liquid bandages
- antihistamines for allergies
- antifungals for fungal infections
- only bathing when necessary using lukewarm water and cleansers with a low pH
- using room humidifiers
- staying hydrated
Clinical treatments for cracked skin depend on the underlying cause. For example, clinicians may prescribe insulin to treat type 1 diabetes, which causes cracked skin.
Other clinical treatments for cracked skin may include:
- topical corticosteroids
- calcineurin inhibitors
- other prescription medications, such as antibiotics for bacterial infections of broken skin
Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.
Is Vaseline good for your skin?
Petroleum jelly skin care products, including Vaseline, can have many uses for supporting skin health. These uses can include:
- relieving dry skin
- healing minor skin injuries
- preventing friction and chaffing
However, some people may find that emollient products are more helpful for relieving dry or cracked skin. Some petroleum jelly products may also contain irritating ingredients, such as fragrance.
Contact a pharmacist or doctor for more advice on what products may be most effective for your condition.
What is the fastest way to hydrate your skin?
OTC emollients and moisturizers may hydrate the skin quickly. Certain ingredients in skin care products, such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, may also help improve hydration.
However, dry skin may return if you do not address the underlying cause.
Why is my skin so dry even when I moisturize?
If your skin is dry even after moisturizing, it may indicate an underlying health condition or external factor is causing your dry skin. Causes of dry skin can include:
- environmental conditions, such as dry weather or exposure to water
- contact with irritants or allergens
- dehydration or nutritional deficiency
- hormonal changes
- chronic conditions such as diabetes or Sjogren’s syndrome
Some moisturizers may also contain irritating ingredients, such as alcohols, retinoids, or fragrances that dry the skin.
Cracked skin can occur for many reasons, including environmental conditions, skin conditions such as eczema, and chronic health conditions.
Treatment for cracked skin can include at-home care to moisturize the skin and keep it clean, as well as medication to resolve the underlying cause.
As cracked skin can develop complications, it is important to contact your doctor if your cracked skin does not heal, worsens, or appears alongside symptoms of infection.