While moisturizing is fairly straightforward, softening rough hands can sometimes be an uphill battle. But if left untreated, rough hands can lead to damage like calluses, which can get thicker and fuller, possibly leading them to crack and split. That can result in bleeding and possible infection from deep cracks. Fortunately, it is possible to soften your rough, calloused hands (and to prevent them from getting too banged up again). Here, dermatologists Susan Massick and Tiffany J. Libby share their most essential hand-care tips for softening rough hands.
Meet the Expert
- Tiffany J. Libby, MD, is director of Mohs Micrographic & Dermatologic Surgery at Brown Dermatology.
- Susan Massick, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and associate professor of dermatology at Ohio State University, Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, OH.
Just like you moisturize your body after every shower, it's important to hydrate your hands each day. While it can be hard to choose a hand cream, Libby suggests sticking with lotions, thanks to their lightness and efficacy. “Creams and balms are thicker and more viscous, and typically are recommended for delivering higher concentrations and providing a more emollient effect to the skin,” she says. Whereas, with softening calluses in particular, the goal is more to break down the dead skin, rather than trap it in moisture. That’s what makes lotions ideal: “Advances in product formulations allow lotions also to deliver proper amounts of effective ingredients without the thickness or greasiness of a cream or balm.”
While the next tip addresses the best ingredients for breaking down dead skin, you may also be able to improve rough texture (on its own, minus any calluses) with a highly concentrated daily lotion.
Prioritize Ingredients Like Salicylic Acid and Urea
So, when it comes to the lotions you should use, Libby narrows it down to a few key “hero” ingredients: salicylic acid, urea, and/or ammonium lactate. “Use these daily to help soften and lift away dead skin cells in these areas,” she says.
- Salicylic Acid: We usually associate this beta hydroxy acid with having clear skin and unclogged pores. But salicylic acid also helps dissolve dead skin cells on the hands: “Salicylic acid has keratolytic properties to break apart the bonds holding together dead skin cells so that they are more easily removed,” Libby says.
- Urea: “Urea is a humectant and a keratolytic, again breaking apart the bonds that bind skin cells together, allowing moisture to reach deep down through thickened skin,” Libby says. In other words, urea should help moisturize while also buffing away those dead cells.
- Ammonium Lactate: The hero ingredient in skin-smoothers like AmLactin (clock the brand name for this reason) “It is used as an exfoliant to uniformly penetrate the skin and soften and buff away dead skin cells,” Libby notes. “It also helps hydrate and retain moisture within the skin.”
Try a Peel
While you’re already moisturizing daily with a lotion—and one with any of the above three ingredients—you can also do a weekly or two- or three-time weekly peel to try to more aggressively lift away dead skin cells. Libby prefers the latter an every-other or every-third-day peel with gentler concentrations of the same aforementioned ingredients, as opposed to a harsher, once-per-week option that can really make hands molt. (Though that option might be good for the first peel—and it might be even better for a quarterly foot peel, too.)
Try Soaking and Grinding
It’s perfectly fine to take some friction to your calluses and buff them out physically. However, Libby cautions against removing too much skin, since that can then cause wounds or tears in the skin, as well as compromise your skin’s barrier functions (trapping moisture in, keeping bacteria out), she says.
“To do this on your own, first soak the callus in warm water for about 5-10 minutes so that skin is soft,” she says. “Then you can file the callus with a pumice stone, using circular or sideways motions. Be sure to moisturize afterward, to help hydrate the skin for a smoother appearance and feel.”
Or a Standalone Soak
For a more momentary relief from rough skin and dry conditions, you can do a nightly hand soak, which may calm and soften skin. Libby suggests combining it with a foot soak using the same recipe—one as simple as using diluted vinegar. “Do this by mixing ½ parts warm water and ½ parts white vinegar in a bowl, and soak daily or several times a week for 5–10 minutes,” she says. “Then pat dry, and apply your medicated lotion or cream.”
Hydrate Before Bed
You probably already know that it’s a good idea to wear night cream while you sleep. The idea is that this bedtime doing so will synchronize with your cellular regeneration cycle—most of our skin regeneration takes place at night.
Libby recommends applying a hand lotion before bed, too, for maximum efficacy. And while she advises doing so for the same reasoning, she adds one more argument in favor of this overnight wear: “While using hand creams at night does sync with your natural skin’s regenerative cycle, I also recommend using it at this time as you are giving more time for the medicated actives to penetrate your skin. You are not using your hands or hand-washing throughout the night, as you might be during the day.” Thus, you’ve got a longer runway to help enjoy those hand-lotion benefits, as opposed to during the day when your hands are hyperactive.
Blot Your Hands Dry
While you might be tempted to rub your hands dry with a washcloth, the best route for soft hands is to blot them dry. This ensures that a little bit of moisture remains on the skin and that you don't get too rough and scratch your skin in the process. It's also a good idea to apply moisturizer while the skin is still a bit damp, as this will help "trap" moisture in the skin.
Wash With a Moisturizing Soap
Some soaps have a tendency to strip the skin, so be sure to check the label. Ingredients such as lanolin and glycerin will help hydrate—this is especially key for those who wash their hands frequently throughout the day.
When to See a Dermatologist
Libby says to try these tips before seeing a dermatologist: “If you are not noticing improvement with these remedies, seek out professional help from a board-certified dermatologist or podiatrist. Often, calluses can be mistaken for other skin conditions (like warts).” Your doctor can determine the best remedy or help properly diagnose the condition in the first place.
How do you keep hands soft once calluses are gone?
Massick outlines three steps you can take to ensure preserved softness: First, eliminate what caused the calluses, if possible. "If not, the calluses will reform in just a matter of time. If you can’t eliminate the primary cause, then protect your hands with gloves or protective tape," she says. Second: "Keep skin hydrated using moisturizers and emollients 2–3 times daily and avoid harsh soaps." Lastly, she says to exfoliate if needed. Her ingredients roster echoes that of Libby's: "Use products with urea, salicylic acid, and ammonium lactate, which are particularly helpful in keeping thickened skin under control."
Can you use foot cream on your hands?
Yes. “There are formulations designed for the thickened skin on both hands and feet,” Libby says. “Some for feet will have higher percentages of actives, so take note if they are too strong for your hands, and switch to a formulation with a lower percentage of these ingredients. For example, urea comes in up to 40%. But at under 10%, it acts primarily as a moisturizer, and between 10%–20%, it exerts its keratolytic properties and helps exfoliate. But at up to 40%, it offers the highest exfoliating properties.”
Are warts the same as calluses?
No, warts are caused by viruses. "Wart removal is centered on destroying the HPV (human papillomavirus) in the skin through destructive methods, like freezing," Massick says. Libby advises seeing a dermatologist in order to remove warts. They won’t go away with these hand-softening/callus-removing methods.
Lyons AB, Moy L, Moy R, Tung R. Circadian rhythm and the skin: a review of the literature. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2019;12(9):42-45.