If you've never shopped for a foot-care item and you go into any large drugstore, you may be amazed at how many options you have. It's easier than ever to find such products, but harder than ever to know how to choose among them. Here's the bottom line on how to buy foot-care products based on what you'll find on the market today:
For foot comfort and support: Some insoles offer only a thin, generically shaped cushion of support, while others are designed to fit a particular shoe style (such as women's high heels or men's work shoes) or to provide extra support or padding in specific areas -- for instance, those with more cushioning at the heel provide back support as well as foot relief. As styles vary, though, so does price. Other items you can purchase include specially shaped padding to place around bunions, corns, and hurt toes; lamb's wool or moleskin to fashion your own padding; foam arch-support inserts and heel pads; and rubber heel cups.
For calluses: The only callus products that really help get rid of thick, painful calluses -- and that are safe -- are cushioning products, pumice stones or other buffing products, footbath products, and moisturizing creams. Skip the "callus removers" (medicated pads) and "callus trimmers." The former contain salicylic acid, which can burn not just the callused area but the more sensitive skin around it, and the latter actually has a blade (you should never cut a callus).
For corns: "Corn removers" also contain salicylic acid, but because corns are generally more painful than calluses, many people prefer to remove them with these liquids, creams, or medicated pads. If you do so, first place doughnut-shaped padding around the corn to protect the surrounding skin. "Corn files" -- to file away the corn, as you would file your nails -- are rarely effective, and you can hurt yourself if you use one too roughly.
For ingrown toenails: Over-the-counter products don't actually change the position or growth of the nail; they just temporarily stop the pain by softening the skin around the nail while it grows out. An antiseptic applied daily helps prevent infection, which is the biggest danger with an ingrown nail (the area where the nail has grown into the skin is a wound and is therefore vulnerable to infection).
For warts: Wart-remover solutions and medicated pads contain salicylic acid and are quite effective in making warts disappear -- but use them very carefully so that you don't apply the treatment to healthy skin. If you're using a solution, put a doughnut-shaped pad or a layer of petroleum jelly around the wart to protect healthy skin before you apply the wart treatment.
For athlete's foot and other fungal infections: It's in this category that you'll probably find the widest selection of brand names in a variety of formulations, including powders, ointments, sprays, liquid solutions, and creams. While the ingredients in these products vary somewhat, most of them contain tolnaftate or undecylenate. You might look for one that also contains silicone powder to absorb the moisture common to fungal infections.
For dry skin: Most moisturizing creams contain the same ingredients: vegetable oils, mineral oils, and lanolin. You can also buy soaps or footbath products with ingredients that not only soften but also disinfect your feet. To treat scaly, itchy, dry skin, look for products that contain lactic acid (10%).
For sunburn: If your feet sunburn easily (and most do), try using a "sports" sunscreen, which should not only have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 but also be waterproof, in case your feet get wet. And be sure to reapply every two hours or after you've been swimming or in water.
There are some foot-care situations where even the best products won't get the job done. If you're in a lot of pain or have a foot problem that won't seem to go away, you should consult a doctor. Learn how to find a podiatrist on the next page.