Does Your Elbow Skin Need Help?
Elbow skin thickens and gets rough and scaly because it is exposed to a lot of friction. Elbow skin is extensor skin, just like skin on your knees and knuckles.
Extensor surface skin is on the outer side of a joint meaning joint movement opens up in this direction. Flexor surface skin is on the closing side of a joint meaning the skin will touch when the joint is fully closed. With your arms, you notice the extensor surface skin is thicker, more sun exposed and often weathered. With your elbows, it is often rough too.
What are common reasons that your elbow skin becomes thick, bumpy or dry?
In dry weather, the thickened elbow skin can get really rough. This can happen when weather is cold outside and interior air is heated and dry. It can also happen in arid climates. Friction will cause elbows to thicken too. If you lean on your elbows a lot, the skin can feel like a rough callus with bumps, scale and thickness.
What can you do to soften your bumpy and rough elbow skin?
Don’t pick at the scale or rub it. This leads to more friction and trauma, causing elbow skin to thicken even more. We call this ‘lichenification’, which translates to lichen-like. We don’t think about lichen much anymore, but the early dermatologists thought rough leathered skin looked like lichen on a tree or rock! Rubbing causes thickening and lichenification of elbow skin.
Many people with rough elbows get into the habit of rubbing and picking at the rough skin. This causes chronic thickening called lichen simplex chronicus – simple thickening from chronic rubbing. Try not to rub rough elbows and instead develop a more effective treatment by using a keratolytic.
The best remedy for rough elbows is to use a keratolytic such as alpha hydroxy acid to soften rough elbow skin.
The best AHA for softening rough, thick and bumpy elbows is glycolic acid. You have to use higher strength creams to get through elbow skin. Aim for a product that has at least 10% free acid content. 15% is even better. Really rough elbows may require 20%! At 20% the cream may be irritating though.
Glycolic acid is an excellent keratolytic for removing rough and thickened skin. Keratolytics chemically break up dead skin cells so that they can shed and peel. They are used in skin care products and acid skin peels to treat warts, seborrheic keratosis and calluses. They can be used in lower concentrations to rejuvenate skin. Glycolic acid is an excellent keratolytic for home use. Other options in skin care products include urea, salicylic acid (a BHA, or beta hydroxy acid), and lactic acid (also an AHA).
In my 30+ years of practicing dermatology, I have seen that glycolic acid is the best keratolytic to soften rough and thick elbow skin. In my practice, the easiest and best glycolic acid product to use at home is my Glycolic Acid Lotion at 15%. We start by using this product daily to treat rough elbows. If this product does not soften elbow skin enough, I then recommend Glytone 20% Heel and Elbow Cream – but this is really strong and I tell my patients to go easy, using it only once or twice a week until skin is soft. Always apply AHA creams and lotions right after your shower or bath for best results – within the magic 3 minutes after toweling skin dry.
What is the best natural remedy for bumpy and rough elbows?
Moisturize with a deeply hydrating cream that contains ingredients to soften skin. These include glycerin, oils such as apricot kernel, avocado and butters such as shea butter and cocoa butter.
My Natural Face and Body Butter Cream contains all of these deeply hydrating organic botanical remedies for rough elbows.
I developed it for the toughest dry skin problems.
If your elbow skin is really tough, you will benefit from Bag Balm. This time-honored ointment was created in the US to soften cows udders during the winter when they become chapped and rough. It softens really thick and rough skin. It’s greasy and messy though.
All moisturizers are always most effective when applied right after your shower or bath, within the magic 3 minutes after toweling skin dry.
This is because they trap water that soaked into your skin while bathing. Apply your deeply hydrating moisturizer when you are not exfoliating with an AHA moisturizer such as my 15% Glycolic Acid Body Lotion (also applied within the magic 3 minutes after toweling skin dry). Use it daily once your elbows are soft.
Avoid friction to help rough elbows heal.
Wear soft clothing to minimize friction. For example, wear a cotton shirt under rough sweaters. Don’t pick or rub. This will make rough elbows worse.
When should you see a doctor for bumps on your elbows?
If the bumps are getting worse see a dermatologist. A variety of rashes can start on the elbows. The most common are psoriasis and granuloma annulare.