person applying corn plaster

Corns and Calluses on feet

What causes corns and calluses on your feet and how to get rid of them

Corns and calluses can be painful and unsightly, but they are nothing to worry about and, in most cases, are simple to remove or manage. This article explains what causes them, how best to remove them, and how to prevent them from forming in the future.

What are corns and calluses?

Corns and calluses are hard or thick areas of skin that develop when your skin tries to protect itself against friction and pressure. Neither are dangerous, but they can cause irritation. They're quite common, and tend to affect women more than men. Despite the terms being used interchangeably, corns and calluses are not the same and are often confused with one another.

Corns have a hard core that reaches the deeper, sensitive skin structures and are painful when pressed. The most painful form of corn is the type where the corn becomes entwined with the nerves of the skin.


Corns are most common on the outside of toes or on the side of a bunion – the areas that experience most rubbing from shoes – but can also appear on the soles of feet. They tend to be white/grey or yellow/brown in colour, depending on your skin type. Symptoms include pain and swelling around the corn and discomfort with direct pressure when walking.

Corns between toes
Corns mostly appear on toes due to pressure

Calluses are hard, tough and thick sections of skin that can develop into a raised lump, often forming on the feet in weight-bearing areas like the balls of your foot. You can also get calluses on your hands, elbows, knees and any other areas which undergo friction or pressure. Calluses are usually larger than corns and vary in size.


They are normally yellowish or pale in colour, and can have flaky, dry skin around them. Pressure and friction endured by your feet or hands can lead to the development of discoloured skin which can become calluses. This thickened skin often appears pale or yellow because the skin is harder than normal, soft skin, giving it its yellowish appearance.

Calluses on feet
Calluses are common on the soles of feet

Do corns and calluses hurt?

Normally, calluses and corns are not painful, but they can become infected if not properly treated. Certain conditions can make it more likely that you will experience painful calluses, infections or ulcerations of the skin, such as diabetes, poor circulation, fragile skin and nerve issues. If you have a painful callus or corn, you should seek medical attention. Do not try to remove the corn or callus yourself using a razor or any other sharp instrument, as this could cause infection.
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What is the difference between a corn and a wart?

Corns and warts look similar but have different causes. A corn is caused by pressure, a wart is caused by a viral infection. The way they cause discomfort is also different. Corns cause pain when you push them whereas warts are more painful when you squeeze them.

What causes corns and calluses?

Skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the subcutis. The epidermis is the external layer of skin and is made up of various layers itself; the outermost layer of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum (or horny layer). This horny layer of skin is composed of cornified cells called corneocytes and epidermal lipids.

 

When your feet have to endure pressure or friction, the epidermis thickens the stratum corneum to protect itself from injury. As a result, hardened, calloused skin is formed.


If the pressure persists, especially in a specific spot, the calloused skin can form a corn with a hard core that reaches the deeper, sensitive skin structures and thus causes pain. This core is often called the 'root' of the corn.


Though they usually appear on the outside of toes, corns can also occur at the sole of the foot or between the toes. This is where the skin is moist from sweat or inadequate drying, causing these 'soft corns'.

calluses on feet illustration
Callused skin is caused by a thickening of the stratum corneum
medical illustration of a corn
Corns form a hard plug of skin that causes pain when it is pressed

Common causes of corns and calluses

Although it’s normal to have calluses and corns every so often, sometimes these are caused by certain factors that can be eliminated to prevent further corns and calloused skin forming:

  • Wearing ill-fitting shoes: Shoes that are too high or too tight, such as high heels or pointy shoes, can put pressure on the foot, while shoes that are too loose can cause friction, both of which can result in corns and calluses forming. 
  • Wearing ill-fitting socks: Socks which do not fit your feet properly can lead to friction between your skin and your shoe.
  • Wearing no socks: Not wearing any socks with shoes can result in friction between your skin and the shoe.
  • Walking barefoot: Walking barefoot will cause the skin on your feet to thicken in order for the skin to protect itself against damage.
  • Repeated actions: Playing an instrument, using gym equipment such as weights, using hand tools without gloves, jogging or walking in a particular way can all lead to pressure being placed on your hands or feet in a certain area.
  • Older age: As we get older, we have less fatty tissue in our skin, which causes there to be less padding and as a result, you have a higher risk of developing calluses and corns, especially on weight-bearing areas like the ball of your foot.
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Callus removal and treatment

There are three simple steps to the perfect soft feet routine. Repeat this foot care routine at home regularly to soften hard, tough, dry skin on your feet and effectively remove calluses.
soaking feet for callus treatment
For 15-20 minutes, soak your feet in warm water to soften the skin, in particular the areas of hard, calloused skin. Use a gentle cleanser to wash the skin then pat your feet dry.
treating calluses on feet with an exfoliator
Gently exfoliate your feet in circular motions, paying special attention to any hard skin or calluses. Leave the scrub on for a minute then rinse off with water and pat your feet dry.
moisturising feet to prevent calluses
Finally, moisturise your feet twice a day using a footcare product that contains Urea, which is proven to be effective at preventing and reducing instances of dry and calloused skin.
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How to get rid of corns

For most people, the three simple steps below help to relieve discomfort and remove corns. If they don’t work for you, consult your doctor for advice.
Fabric Extra Flexible Plaster
Clean the affected area and then apply a plaster that contains salicylic acid such as the Elastoplast Callous Plaster, or alternatively the Elastoplast Fabric Plaster. These easy-to-apply strips protect the corn, stop further pressure and relieve pain. Leave it to work and replace the plaster after two days.
soaking feet in salt bath to remove corn
After three or four days, the now softened corn can be removed in a warm salt or soap water bath, using a pumice stone to rub away the corn. Don’t try to remove the corn with sharp objects such as a razor blade or knife.

Once the corn is removed moisturising your feet regularly will strengthen your skin barrier and reduce the chance of corns reforming.

When to see a doctor

If you suffer from diabetes or peripheral arterial disease, or have fragile skin, you should seek medical advice before trying home treatment. You should also speak to a doctor if your corn shows signs of infection, such as pus or drainage, severe pain, swelling or redness. On rare occasions your physician may recommend surgery if there is an underlying problem with the bone structure.
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Preventing corns and calluses

 

Prevention is always better than having to cure. Keeping your feet in good condition is the best way to prevent corn and calluses from forming, so the following approaches may help:
  • Your first measure should always be to stop further pressure to relieve pain, so choose shoes that fit well and don’t pinch, rub or put your feet under undue pressure
  • Wear a clean pair of thick, cushioned socks each day and use talcom powder to prevent sweating
  • Regularly and carefully remove excessive hard skin from your feet with a pumice stone, foot file and an exfoliating footcare product
  • Moisturise your feet twice a day
  • Padded shoe inserts (orthotics) or protective insoles can provide added support and cushioning, especially if you have underlying foot issues like problems with how you walk, stand, or run
  • Trim your toenails regularly because longer nails can force the toes to push up against your shoe and create pressure, and be sure to cut them straight across (not down at angles)
  • Protect the hands by wearing padded gloves when using hand tools
removing calluses with foot file
Regularly remove hard skin from your feet to prevent calluses from forming
moisturising to treat callused feet
Moisturising keeps your feet soft and prevents more calluses from developing
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