Callus Behavior

As the largest organ in the body, the skin keeps score too. A prime example is a handful of childhood sunburns adding up to skin cancer down the road. Another – and the subject of today’s post – is calluses.

A little semantic clarification before we continue. The homonyms callus (n. meaning hard, thickened patches of skin) and callous (v. meaning insensitive and boorish) are not the same thing though they share the same root word meaning thick-skinned.

Formed for a function

Essentially, the hard, thickened skin of a callus is a record of repeated undue friction and/or pressure on a specific area. They’re your body’s natural bumper made up of layers and layers of epidermis without nerves or a blood supply that develop to protect yourself from pain, injury and infection. They often look yellowish due to light refraction. Surfers get them on their knees, weight- lifters on their hands and nearly everyone gets them on their feet.

Calluses can grow anywhere on the body but they’re most common on the hands and feet. In fact the glabrous (that is, hairless and smooth) skin there is physiologically designed to callus more easily than other parts of the body because these are the most common sites of pressure and friction. Women tend to callus on their feet far more than men because of the shoes we wear in the name of fashion (full disclosure: I do it too and love my high heels.)

Calluses often begin as blisters and are a function of the body’s immune system. If repeated rubbing on the blistered area doesn’t abate, the body says, “Right, I see that the pain message isn’t working to get you to stop what’s causing this so I’m just going to grow some protection over the area.” In other words, the body is protecting you from yourself.

The only way to eliminate a callus is to stop whatever is causing it. That’s it. You can shave, cut, pumice and chemically peel the hardened skin away but if it’s your pink stilettos that are causing it and you refuse to give them up, the callus is going to grow back and fast. It’s a myth that shaving, cutting, pumicing and peeling makes calluses grow back faster. If you did these things and you stopped what’s triggering the callus’ growth, over time it would fade away.

You can’t moisturize a callus off either. What moisturizing can do is make the skin feel softer and smoother as well as more attractive to the eye. In most instances, this should be enough. Moisture also helps hydrate tough, dry, cracked skin on the heels that, though thick and unsightly, is not in and of itself callused.

Corn story

While calluses can often be good things because they serve a positive, protective function, corns most definitely do not. Corns are a type of callus – caused by a circular rubbing motion – but are cone shaped and sit on the bones of the toes or, less commonly, the fingers. Corns can be extremely painful because their tips can hit a nerve.

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The first order of business for treating corns is to stop what’s creating the pressure. If you’re unsure and can’t identify them exactly, it’s time to consult a podiatrist who needs to look at your shoes and may design an orthotic to relief the pressure.

Again, as with a callus, if you don’t relieve what caused the corn in the first place, it’ll reappear even if you’ve had it professionally removed.

Here’s the rub

One thing that strikes us about a baby’s skin is how uniform it is all over, indeed, not much has happened to it so there’s little imprinted record yet; the feet are as soft as the face. Although we know it intellectually, it’s hard to think that this petite little package of perfection is going to grow into something large, smelly and hairy and those little soles, heels and toes are going to get thick, rough and callused. But they will because that’s how life works and they’re doing it for our own good.

Calluses happen but they don’t have to stay on your skin.

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