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As a long-time lover of exfoliating foot peels, I was a bit taken aback by the cautionary advice I received from Marcela Correa, medical nail technician and owner of Medi Pedi NYC. She says that the best foot exfoliators—and the only ones she recommends for at-home DIY methods—are manual exfoliants. Her reasons make perfect sense, too:
“I don’t recommend the chemical exfoliants because when it comes to skin and calluses, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach,” Correa says. “Not all dead skin is meant to be removed, but by using a peel that targets all areas of the foot, you’re risking hypersensitivity to the already healthy areas of your foot. The acid in these products changes the pH in the skin, which ends up producing even more calluses. Manual exfoliation is the best and safest way for at-home exfoliation because it gives you more control on what skin you want to remove and which areas don’t need to be touched.”
Correa opts for a metal foot file, one with disposable exfoliating stickers, citing these as “a safe and hygienic way to remove unwanted dead skin without the risks of ‘going too deep’ or burning the skin. It is more hygienic than traditional pumice stones, using disposable exfoliating stickers successfully preventing cross-contamination.” After all, who’s to say what germs have accumulated on your standard-fare foot scrubber between uses, especially if other people in your household are having a go?
But don’t count her out when it comes to proactively exfoliating ingredients in foot lotions and creams, because this is a perfect way to steadily break down dead skin on calluses, cracked heels, and the like, as well as prevent the formation of further problems. It’s just the peels that Correa avoids. When it comes to everyday topical products, however, she advocates for cracked-heel- and callus-busting ingredients like urea. “Urea breaks down the protein keratin in the outer layer of your skin,” Correa explains. “This helps reduce dead skin buildup and gets rid of flaking or scaling skin.
That said, she advises against using anything labeled “medical-grade” or “medicated” when it comes to urea creams unless recommended by a doctor. That’s because many people think they need a high-grade pick but end up causing new problems as a result. “Often, experimenting and self-diagnosing will lead to the condition getting worse and it will take longer for you to treat it down the road, especially if you have athlete’s foot, psoriasis, or hardened calluses due to medical conditions like Diabetes. These conditions have to be treated in a specific way using the right products and regimen.” She also urges you to visit the doctor for a proper diagnosis of things that you might perceive as callus but are in fact more severe, like psoriasis, eczema, and warts.
Below, check out some of the best foot exfoliators that fall within Correa’s advice. And heed her final words of wisdom: “Be careful to avoid unnecessary over-exfoliation, and opt for a mix of foot creams and manual exfoliation as opposed to chemical exfoliants.”
Cuccio Metal Foot File
As Correa explained, this is the most hygienic way to get the benefits of a foot file; you simply swap in a new gritty sticker on the stainless steel handle for each use. Give yourself an up-and-down scrub (as opposed to a sideways motion), and rest easy knowing you’ve got as many as 180 sessions since the kit is stocked with as many stickers. It’s also easy to wash the handle between uses.
Dr. Scholl’s Ultra Hydrating Foot Cream with 25% Urea
This formula is so rich in urea—that favorite foot-softening ingredient of Correa’s—and it can reset your feet practically overnight. Use it to target callus buildups or the first signs of any dryness and cracking. We’d suggest saving it as an emergency lever, unless you stock up on a few tubes. Otherwise, you can deploy standard-fare softeners on a daily/nightly basis, and keep this one for the big-league tasks.
Pedestrian Project Cracked Heel Repair
Pedestrian project’s entire brand is built on giving you softer, cushier peds. This balm is a terrific targeted solution for anyone with annoyingly dry, cracked heels. Just rub a little onto clean, towel-dried feet before bed, and let the soothing ingredients (mango and shea butters, as well as oil from black currant seed).
Bliss Exfoliating Foot Cream
This restorative formula by Bliss features soothing aloe leaf and cooling peppermint. It uses glycolic acid to gently slough off dead skin cells and in turn smooths, hydrates, and refreshes rough or dry feet. Use it daily to prevent the buildup of dead cells, or whenever you need to steadily and carefully reset things.
Rikans Foot File
Although some stomachs may turn at the thought—because, yeah, it looks like a cheese grater—this classic foot file is essentially a microplane for your feet that removes any rough spots. This one is crafted from surgical-grade stainless steel and works on either dry or wet feet. This tool does require a little more skill and effort than some of the other options on this list, but it imparts an amazing level of smoothness in no time at all. Some people can also find it quite satisfying to use.
Gehwol Callus Cream
This is Correa’s top recommendation for pre-existing calluses, given its ability to file them down quickly and effectively. It’s gentler than medicated products—the type she advises against using—and is her top recommendation for her patients who need an effective and efficient remedy.
Maryton Foot Exfoliator Sponge
If you want to recreate your favorite professional pedicure while at home, Maryton’s exfoliating foot sponge is the perfect tool. The two-in-one design is made from pumice and removes dead skin without being too abrasive. It features two different levels of coarseness to give you the ability to treat both tough calluses or slightly dry skin. Best of all, the pumice doesn’t require any strong chemicals; you simply use it with a little water.