Summer is officially here, and it’s time for hiking! You got through the swaths of mosquitoes, conquered your local hill, added another set to your instagram photo collection. Then you get back, and notice that you have an unwanted souvenir on your toes. Calluses and corns aren’t dangerous, but they can be a cosmetic problem at times. Thankfully, with a bit of adjustment, they aren’t hard to get rid of.
What Are Calluses and Corns?
Calluses are areas where the skin becomes thickened where there is constant friction. Corns are calluses that have an inner core and usually form on top of the toes and often are painful when pressure is applied. Calluses and corns are most common on the feet and then the hands but can occur anywhere where the skin is exposed to low but continuous friction or pressure. Calluses and corns are usually yellow or skin-colored but can also have a red or brown hue and are generally painless. They are generally not a cause for concern.
Calluses Are Features, Not a Bug!
Calluses and corns are not “skin conditions” in the usual sense of the word. Fungi, bacteria, or viruses do not cause them. They won’t spread to other people, and except for unusual circumstances, are not a cause for concern. Calluses and corns are a protective feature of the skin that helps shield the areas under friction and pressure. This means that calluses and corns will naturally go away if you do nothing. On the other hand, if you don’t or can’t remove the source of the friction and pressure (gymnasts and musicians constantly have corns and calluses on their hands), even if you get rid of them temporarily, they’ll come back as soon as the friction and pressure are brought back into the mix.
Calluses and corns are caused by prolonged pressure or friction on the skin, so avoiding them is as simple as removing the source of the pressure and friction. The most common causes are:
- New or ill-fitting shoes: If the footwear is too tight (common in new shoes that aren’t broken in) or if it’s too loose, the foot will slip and slide and rub against the footwear.
- Sandals: Great for summer, but if you wear sandals all day, this can add up to a lot of friction on the toes. Skipping the socks can also increase friction on the feet as well.
- Instruments/Sports: Seasoned athletes and musicians are well aware of friction and calluses with their sport or instrument. If you try a new activity and get a callus, think about the source of the friction.
- Structural problems like bunions, hammertoe, and bone spurs can make you more susceptible to calluses and corns.
Remember that calluses and corns are mechanical responses of the skin to protect itself. As such, they are easier to prevent than to remove. Avoid the activity that is causing pressure or friction, and the callus will also go away in a week or two without intervention. A few tactics may help make them go away more smoothly and return to normal skin faster, but remember that they will come back if pressure or friction is added to the mix again.
- Do nothing/rest: Calluses and corns will naturally go away if there is no friction or pressure on the skin. Often calluses form when the patient engages in an activity that is unusual for them.
- Remove the source of pressure: Calluses and corns on the feet are often caused by ill-fitting shoes (too small a size or brand new unbroken shoes or other mechanical defects that create excess friction). Calluses on the hands are generally temporary. If you are using tools, having gloves on will help prevent some friction.
- Soften: Soak the area that is callused in warm water. A bath helps to soften the skin.
- Exfoliate: Use a pumice stone or a nail file to thin down the callused skin after bathing or soaking in warm water. Don’t overdo this, and stop immediately if you feel pain.
- Moisturize: Moisturizing helps smooth out the dry, calloused area and is also soothing for the skin.
- Prevent: You generally know what causes the calluses (new activity like rock climbing or hiking, new shoes that haven’t been broken in yet). Avoid the source, and you generally avoid the calluses. On the other hand, calluses are often just a minor inconvenience and something you just live with. If you are a gymnast, calluses are a part of life.
If your sport or occupation demands movements or activities that cause calluses, you will likely need to live with them. Calluses and corns are not dangerous; they are not a condition but a protective adaptation and are harmless. The good news is that corns and calluses most often form when the skin is exposed to change in friction. As the skin becomes harder and used to it, calluses tend to become less noticeable.
If you have diabetes or have other medical conditions that restrict blood flow, corns and calluses can have more severe consequences. In particular, you should not attempt to exfoliate the skin away or cut it yourself as infection can be a concern. See your doctor.