5 Tips for Softening Scaly Elbows

How can you get rid of some of that scaly buildup on your elbows?
How can you get rid of some of that scaly buildup on your elbows? See more pictures of ways to get beautiful skin.
ŠiStockphoto.com/Martin Allinger

Elbows are unwieldy, knobby and generally awkward-looking, so as long as they do their job properly, we rarely think about them. Even those of us who spend considerable time and effort to groom and clean the rest of our skin can be guilty of overlooking this spot.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for neglect and bad habits to give way to thick, uncomfortable buildup. Though some of that buildup is necessary for protection, there's no need to settle for elephant-like extremities. No matter how long you've been ignoring your elbows, there are steps you can take to soften your skin and rid yourself of those persistent scales and dark patches. Read on to find out how you can change your habits -- and what you can do in the meantime for a quick fix. In no time at all, you'll have the right to bare arms.


5: Elbows Off the Table!

The first step to shedding the calluses and buildup coating your elbows is to become conscious of the bad habit that causes it. Think about it -- the skin over your elbows is responsible for protecting the joints, muscles and bones that allow your arm to move and flex. Over time, your skin will need to adapt to the pressure. You probably already know that thick skin accumulates in places that need extra protection from abrasion, like your heels and knees. (For a more extreme example, ask a dedicated guitar player about his or her callused fingertips.)

Aside from occasional bumps and bruises, your elbows don't really need all that protection. If you're constantly leaning on them (which, if you have a desk job, could be hours every day), you're causing a lot of friction that results in dry buildup and tiny ingrown hairs, which can extend up the back of your upper arms along your tricep muscles. Some clothing, like wool sweaters, can make it even worse.


Want to scrub off all the grime you've already accumulated from years of poor elbow posture? We'll discuss cleansing tips on the next page.

4: Keep Them Clean

Don't wash with water that's too hot.
Don't wash with water that's too hot.
Sami Sarkis/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Why are the hard-working elbows such a common dry spot? Much like your knees, those little folds and creases are susceptible to dryness and general unattractiveness, but they're important -- without that skin, your joints wouldn't have enough room to flex. Unfortunately, when your arms are straight, your elbow skin has no choice but to bunch up, and it's easy for dust and germs to collect, which can be dangerous. Make sure you clean them often to prevent buildup and infection.

You can take some simple steps to make your cleansing routine friendlier toward dry skin, and they won't even take any extra time. Shower at a moderate temperature, because super hot water saps moisture. Avoid skin care products containing alcohol and harsh acids, which can make dryness worse. Finally, resist the urge to scrub dry. If you gently towel yourself off, it'll do far less damage to your skin.


The shower is also a great place to exfoliate, or slough off buildup. On the next page, we'll tell you how to get the most out of your scrub.

3: Exfoliate

Exfoliation -- scrubbing off dead skin buildup to expose the fresh, new cells underneath -- feels luxurious, and it's even better when you can use stuff you already have at home. For a yummy-smelling combination that will seriously soften your skin, mix two parts brown sugar with one part olive oil, and add a bit of ground ginger. Gently massage into your elbows and wash off with a wet cloth [source: WebMD].

Regular exfoliation is a great treatment for keratosis pilaris, which is a harmless yet bothersome condition that's responsible for the "chicken skin" texture of your upper arms and elbows. (It can also appear in other places, like the thighs.) Keratin, a type of protein that's a building block for healthy skin, hair and nails, can build up in your pores, which plugs the hair follicles, causing bumps and ingrown hairs. Gently exfoliating in the shower helps soften the skin. Follow up with an over-the-counter lotion that contains lactic acid, which helps reduce keratin buildup [source: Grossman].


You're not done yet, though. Keep reading to learn how to protect your fresh, newly smooth skin.

2: Moisturize

Apply moisturizer soon after stepping out of the shower.
Apply moisturizer soon after stepping out of the shower.
Elea Dumas/Workbook Stock/Getty Images

Despite folds and creases galore, elbows are woefully lacking in the glands that keep the rest of your skin lubricated, so it's up to you to pick up the slack. This is another endeavor where it's easy to find helpful products at home. Milk is handy for a soothing soak. Thick moisturizing creams and petroleum jelly are the best products for a little post-shower attention, and some experts recommend at least two applications a day.

Other over-the-counter options are lotions containing urea, lactic acid, or alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids, which are good for fighting bumps. A very small amount of jojoba oil, massaged into dry elbows, will closely mimic the body's own natural moisturizers [source: Shape].


Whatever moisturizer you choose, experts believe the key is to slather it on as soon as possible after bathing, preferably within a couple minutes of toweling off. This will help prevent the moisture loss from evaporation that occurs when your skin starts to cool down.

And it can't be said enough: Make sure you're hydrated to help keep your skin healthy. If you're spending a lot of time exercising or enjoying the sun, drink more than usual to compensate for the hydration you're losing through sweat.

Unfortunately, you can't cure every skin malady in your kitchen. Some elbows might be so far gone that professional help is in order.

1: Check with Your Doctor

Considering the commonness of dry elbows and all of the possible causes, it seems as if you could try home and over-the-counter remedies forever. In certain cases, though, a trip to the pharmacy just won't cut it.

The elbows are common prey for psoriasis, though many people incorrectly assume it's just a case of dryness [source: Kolsky Hertzig]. Psoriasis is characterized most often by patches of raised red skin topped off with shiny scales, which can ooze, crust or bleed if they're picked or irritated. Elbows are an especially painful area because bending and moving affected skin can further irritate the rash, and psoriasis sometimes causes joint pain (psoriatic arthritis) in affected areas [source: WebMD].


Eczema is another condition that warrants a visit to your doctor, because the condition is manageable but not curable. Management requires an evaluation to determine the triggers to your particular situation and ways to alleviate or avoid those triggers. Eczema results in dry, thickened skin that doesn't go away on its own or respond to hydrocortisone cream. The skin patches can blister or develop crust [source: WebMD].

See the next page for more advice and lots more information on skin care.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Gluck, Didi. "10 Body-Smoothing Secrets from the Top Skin Experts." WebMD. (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/10-body-smoothing-secrets-from-the-top-skin-experts
  • Grossman, Karen, MD. "Why the Skin on Your Arms is Bumpy -- And What to Do About It." WebMD. April 22, 2010. (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/why-the-skin-on-your-arms-is-bumpy-and-what-to-do-about-it
  • Kolsky Hertzig, Alyssa. "Summer Beauty Tips." WebMD. (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/summer-beauty-tips
  • Park, Madison. "More talking, more problems: 'Cell phone elbow' damages nerves." CNN. (May 18, 2010)http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/06/02/cell.phone.elbow/index.html#cnnSTCText
  • Shape. "Beauty Secrets of the Spas." (May 11, 2010)http://www.shape.com/beauty_and_style/spa/at_home_treatments/beauty_secrets_of_the_spas
  • WebMD. "Calluses and Corns--Exams and Tests." Dec. 7, 2009. (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/calluses-and-corns-exams-and-tests
  • WebMD. "Psoriasis--Symptoms." (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/psoriasis/psoriasis-symptoms
  • WebMD. "Spring Cleaning: How to Pamper Your Skin." (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/features/how-pamper-your-skin
  • WebMD. "Understanding Eczema -- Symptoms." (May 11, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/eczema/understanding-eczema-symptoms