4 Causes of Pool Toe and How to Prevent It

It's not totally clear why some people get "pool toes," but there are a few things you can do to help prevent it.
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Yep, "pool toe" is a summertime thing. It might not be an official diagnosis, but "pool toe" or "swimmer's toe" refers to a "peeling or cracking of the bottom of the toes after being in the pool for a long time," Nelya Lobkova, DPM, a podiatrist at Step Up Footcare in New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

For the record, the medical name of this skin condition is "keratolysis exfoliativa."

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Basically, if you see a bunch of peeling skin on the bottom of your toes or have "splitting toes," you might have keratolysis exfoliativa.

Why Pool Toe Happens

Spending a long time splashing in the pool is fun, but more can happen than just prune-y hands and feet. You'll first spot a blister on your feet, which probably won't come as a surprise right now. It is sandal season, after all, and a blister may be easy to dismiss. But a curious thing will happen: When it opens, you'll see red or irritated skin underneath that later becomes dry or cracked, Dr. Lobkova explains. This skin usually does not itch, notes DermNet NZ.

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While the exact reason pool toe happens isn't fully understood, Dr. Lobkova says, there are some things that may make you more at risk for the condition:

1. Your Feet Are Irritated

Often, "pool toe is a result of the chlorinated water causing irritation of the outer layer of plantar skin," Dr. Lobkova says.

Other irritants, like bleach or detergents, can cause the peeling, too, she adds.

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2. Your Feet Are Sweaty

If you typically have sweatier feet (or hyperhidrosis — a condition marked by excessive sweating — on your feet), then your toes spend more time hanging out in a wet or moist environment, which sets the stage for these types of irritation and blisters, Dr. Lobkova says.

3. You Have a Pre-Existing Skin Condition

Having eczema or psoriasis also makes you more prone to swim toe, because these conditions mean that you have a compromised skin barrier, Dr. Lobkova says.

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4. You’re Touching the Bottom of the Pool

There's nothing wrong with the bottom of the pool, only that the friction from the rough cement may rough up your feet to create the irritation and peeling, according to a 2020 case report and review in ​Cureus​.

Splitting toes commonly occurs in children who typically have more contact with the cement surface as they play in the shallower pool, but adults can get swimmer's toe, too.

How to Treat Swimmer’s Toe

Follow Dr. Lobkova's advice for fresh, non-peeling feet:

  1. After swimming in a chlorinated pool, rinse off well with warm (not hot) water, and keep showers short (5 to 10 minutes max).
  2. Keep feet dry. This might mean staying out of the pool and making sure you're wearing footwear and socks that allow for air flow or are sweat-wicking.
  3. Don't peel the skin. It can be so tough not to, but try to keep your mitts off your feet. "Let it heal on its own," Dr. Lobkova says.
  4. Moisturize feet with gentle (think: fragrance-free) moisturizers like CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($11.24; Amazon), Eucerin ($12.12; Amazon) or Aquaphor ($13.74; Amazon) to encourage skin barrier repair.

Is It Pool Toe or Athlete's Foot?

Athlete's foot is a fungal infection that can also cause peeling skin on the toes. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, athlete's foot typically comes with a rash that itches, stings and burns, too. Talk to your doctor if you think you might have athlete's foot, because you'll need an anti-fungal treatment to get rid of it.

How to Prevent Pool Toe

There are a few precautions you can take to help keep feet and toes peel-free this summer:

  1. First, if you have a known skin condition like eczema or psoriasis that makes you more prone to pool toe, keep swims shorter, Dr. Lobkova says. (And if your skin condition isn't well-controlled, talk to your doctor about the best ways to manage it.)
  2. No matter what, remember that splitting, cracking skin means you have a compromised skin barrier and may be more at risk for other infections, so wear footwear around the pool and when going into the bathroom, and moisturize your feet and toes before and/or after swimming.
  3. Always rinse off after you swim, but keep your rinse to just a few minutes and use warm water instead of hot to avoid irritating or drying out your skin even more.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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