What is a foot callus?
Calluses are areas of thickened skin that develop on your feet from pressure and friction. The skin responds to these stresses by creating a tough, protective layer of keratin, a protein found in skin. While calluses can appear on any part of the body, they often form on the feet because of the pressure and friction from weight-bearing activities like walking.
Calluses usually appear in areas of the foot that bear weight, like the heels or balls of the feet. They can also appear on the tops and sides of the foot.
They are sometimes confused with foot corns, which are often smaller and rounder than calluses and tend to be more painful when you press on them.
They can usually be removed at home but certain people, such as those with diabetes, should see a doctor or podiatrist (foot specialist) because of their increased risk of infection.
Most common symptoms
Foot calluses form over time and create an irregular or wide area of skin that is hardened and thick. As a result, you may experience decreased sensation in that area of the foot.
- Area of thick, hardened area of skin, typically on the bottom of the foot on the heels or balls of the foot
- Decreased sensitivity to touch in the area of the callus
Other symptoms you may have
- Redness around the hardened area of skin
Corns and calluses are not the same condition. They are very similar, but corns are often smaller, round, and more painful than calluses, which are larger and often do not cause much pain. —Dr. Priyanka Gimbel
Many times, calluses can be removed with at-home treatment. However, you should call your doctor or podiatrist before treating it yourself if:
Foot calluses develop from repetitive friction and rubbing of the skin on the foot against shoes or the ground. The body’s natural response is to try to protect these areas of the foot by creating a thicker layer of your outermost layer of skin—the stratum corneum.
Calluses are not necessarily a bad thing because they’re the body’s way of protecting you. However, they can sometimes become uncomfortable and make walking or standing difficult.
Sometimes, getting new or different shoes makes a world of difference. Don’t forget to update your shoes when they start to wear down, even if they were very supportive at the beginning. —Dr. Gimbel
Some of the risk factors for developing calluses include:
- Conditions that change the alignment of your bones, such as arthritis, bunions/bunionettes, and hammertoes.
- Wearing shoes that don’t fit properly.
- Wearing shoes without socks.
- Walking barefoot.
- Standing on your feet for long periods of time.
- Problems with walking (such as a limp) that create extra pressure on certain parts of the foot.
Certain medical conditions like diabetes or circulation issues can make it unsafe to do at-home treatments. It is safer to have the calluses treated and followed up frequently by your doctor to avoid further injury or harm to the foot. If you are prone to calluses because of a bone condition or abnormality in walking, talk to your doctor about ways to reduce pressure on your feet like custom orthotics. —Dr. Gimbel
For a recently developed callus that is not very large or thick, you can follow these steps:
- Soak the affected foot in warm water for 10 to 15 minutes or until the callus is softened.
- Use a pumice stone or nail file to rub off some of the callused skin.
- Apply an over-the-counter 40% salicylic acid patch to the callus.
- After 48 to 72 hours, remove the patch.
- Repeat these steps as needed until the callus is gone. If the callus has not gone away after 2 weeks, you should see a doctor.
If the callus is so large that a patch can’t cover it, you can apply an over-the-counter cream that contains 40% urea or 12% ammonium lactate like Bare 40 or Amlactin.
If you’ve had the callus for several weeks or months and it is quite thick or it hasn’t gone away with at-home treatments in 2 weeks, you should see a doctor.
Also see a doctor if you have numbness or tingling in the feet, diabetes, circulation problems, or if you are immunosuppressed (e.g. HIV/AIDS, cancer, on chronic steroids, history of transplant, etc). In these cases, you may be at risk of getting an infection if you attempt to remove the callus yourself.
The doctor can remove the callus in the office with a scalpel.
Orthopedic (bone) surgery is sometimes necessary if you have frequently recurring calluses because of underlying bone deformities or if other treatments don’t work and the calluses are causing severe pain or problems with daily activities. The surgery would try to correct the bone deformity.
- The most important thing is to wear proper-fitting shoes with socks.
- It may be helpful to get custom-fit orthotic shoes or inserts to minimize friction on areas of the foot that are prone to calluses.
- Avoid going barefoot.
- Take good care of the skin on your feet by moisturizing daily with a lotion or cream (Vaseline, CeraVe, Cetaphil, etc.).
- If you want to use over-the-counter foot peels or masks, check the label for instructions since some may not be safe for daily or prolonged use.
- Trimming your toenails reduces undue pressure on the toes and the heels, which can also help prevent calluses.
Dr. Gimbel is a board-certified Family Medicine physician and writer/reviewer for Buoy Health. She received her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience with a minor in Sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago (2008) and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and School of Public Health (2013). She completed a family medicine residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (2016) and a women's health fellowship at MacNeal Hospital in Illinois (2017). She worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin Madison for a few years prior to transitioning to a telemedicine practice. She joined Buoy Health in 2021 and is excited to help people better understand their symptoms and illnesses through this position.