The Important Reason You Should Scrub Your Feet, Foot and Skin Doctors Say
With sandal season upon us, experts reveal why it’s a good idea to add foot exfoliation to your skincare routine—and not just for the sake of a prettier pedicure.
From the latest TikTok trends (hello, snail mucin!) to the timelessness of tretinoin cream, skincare in the U.S. is an enormous industry. We cleanse, we tone, we apply cocktails of ingredients we can’t even pronounce. But whether you’re a 10-step Korean skincare devotee or you stick with a straightforward approach…when’s the last time you paid much attention to the skin on your feet? (Spoiler: most of us neglect it.)
Bradley Schaeffer, DPM, a board-certified foot and ankle surgeon who stars on the TLC show, My Feet Are Killing Me, says just as we care for the skin on our face, neck, and hands, we should all be pampering our feet. “After all, our feet get more wear and tear, day in and day out, acting as our foundation,” Dr. Shaeffer says.
But foot care routinely falls behind other health priorities, according to a survey from the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). This point reinforces prior research from the APMA (via the New York Times) that suggested more than 50 percent of women are embarrassed by the state of their feet.
So, with sandal season upon us, experts tell The Healthy @Reader’s Digest why it’s a good idea to add foot exfoliation to your routine—and not just for the sake of a prettier pedicure.
Benefits of foot exfoliation
Anna Chacon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Florida, says, “Exfoliation is a key part of overall foot health.” Daily demands put a lot of pressure on our feet, which is why the skin on our soles thickens to offer extra defense. This natural protection is necessary to support and protect our feet. But if they’re left uncared for, calluses can become unsightly, painful, and start to crack—which opens up our skin to infection.
The soles of your feet (and the palms of your hands) are also the only parts of your skin that lack oil glands. This is a big reason your feet can be much more prone to dryness, according to the National Library of Medicine. Because dry skin causes cells to die faster than normal, good foot hygiene helps you slough off this top layer. If these dead skin cells build up, you’re more likely to experience flaky, itchy skin. Exfoliating this dead skin away can also keep your pores from clogging and causing more irritation, says Dr. Chacon.
Practicing an exfoliation routine is also a great opportunity to check up on your general foot health, Dr. Schaeffer explains. “Look for anything odd or different,” he says. “I recommend checking between the toes, at the nails, and looking for any type of infection or irritation.” This is because changes to how your feet look and feel can be a warning sign of certain health conditions, like:
- The loss of hair on the feet, change in toenail color and thickness, and sores that won’t heal may be symptoms of peripheral arterial disease, according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons
- A wound on your foot that won’t heal—and isn’t that painful—could indicate diabetes, according to the APMA
- Brittle, cracking nails might point to iron deficiency or a thyroid disorder, according to Penn Medicine
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How to exfoliate your feet
How often you exfoliate your feet depends on factors like your skin sensitivity and activity level. But as a general rule, Dr. Schaeffer recommends aiming for twice weekly. Still, your routine also depends on which products you’re using. Always refer to manufacturer instructions and consult your doctor if you have any questions about a skincare product you’re using.
One thing you do want to avoid? “You don’t want to over-exfoliate,” Dr. Chacon says. First off, your feet need calluses as a protective barrier—and research published in Nature Medicine says that healthy calluses actually help us walk properly, supporting full-body musculoskeletal health. But over-doing it also “runs the risk of introducing micro-abrasions and cuts that could result in entry points for infection-producing bacteria,” she says.
Start with a soak
Dr. Chacon says to soak your feet before exfoliating to soften dry, dead skin. She advises to shoot for at least a five to 10-minute soak in warm water. That said, enjoying your foot soak a little longer may come with some added benefits, like easing tired feet, relieving symptoms of fungal infections, boosting circulation, and curbing foot odor.
There are two main forms of foot exfoliation: chemical and manual. Chemical exfoliators are products that contain different types of acids that are safe enough for your skin but strong enough to dissolve and slough off dead cells. Baby Foot Exfoliation Foot Peel is a leading, expert-recommended, acid-based mask with a significant following. You can also check out any of these nine expert-approved foot masks that combine different acids with skin-nourishing ingredients.
Or, you could reach for time-tested drugstore staples like a pumice stone. Just make sure that the stone is wet, and gently rub your skin in a circular motion. There’s also a wide range of mechanical-style exfoliators available to suit different preferences and needs. For a quick, effective fix, Dr. Chacon recommends checking out Scholl Velvet Smooth Express Pedi Foot File. She says the product uses ground-up diamond particles, one of the hardest natural minerals in the world. (Your feet deserve diamonds!)
You probably already have some foot exfoliators in your kitchen, too. Whether you’ve run out of your favorite foot peel or want to indulge in an at-home spa day, try out these 8 homemade foot scrubs.
“The skin on the feet is much thicker than the rest of our body,” Dr. Chacon reminds us, emphasizing that it’s important to use a rich, intensive foot moisturizer after you exfoliate. Dr. Shaeffer says he recommends the product line from Dr. Scholl’s to repair and rejuvenate your feet, and that these products work to immediately relieve issues like dry skin and maintain long-term skin health.
And if you need help choosing a moisturizer, see how experts decode ingredients and pick the best product for your needs.