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Pitted keratolysis

Author: Dr Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 1998. Updated by Dr Oakley; Dr Jannet Gomez, Postgraduate Student in Clinical Dermatology, Queen Mary University London, United Kingdom, April 2016.

Pitted keratolysis — codes and concepts

What is pitted keratolysis?

Pitted keratolysis is a superficial bacterial skin infection typically of the soles of the feet characterised by whitish skin with clusters of punched-out pits, and resulting in smelly feet.

Pitted keratolysis

What is the cause of pitted keratolysis?

Pitted keratolysis is caused by several bacterial species, including corynebacteria, Dermatophilus congolensis, Kytococcus sedentarius, actinomyces and streptomyces.

The bacteria proliferate in moist conditions. The pitting is due to destruction of the horny cells (stratum corneum) by protease enzymes produced by the bacteria.

The bad smell is due to sulfur compounds produced by the bacteria: thiols, sulfides and thioesters.

Who gets pitted keratolysis? 

Pitted keratolysis is much more common in males than in females. Occupations at risk include:

  • Farmers
  • Athletes
  • Sailors or fishermen
  • Industrial workers
  • Military personnel  

Females offering pedicure and foot care in a spa salon may also be affected by pitted keratolysis. 

Factors that lead to the development of pitted keratolysis include:

What are the signs and symptoms of pitted keratolysis?

  • Typically presents as smelly feet (bromhidrosis)
  • Usually affects the sole of the foot - forefoot, heel, or both. Palms are rarely infected.
  • Results in a whitish skin surface with clusters of multiple, fine punched-out pits.
  • Pits often join together (coalesce) to form a larger, crater-like lesion.
  • The appearance is more dramatic when the feet are wet.
  • A variant of pitted keratolysis presents with diffuse red areas on the soles.
  • The pits themselves are usually asymptomatic but may cause soreness or itching when walking.

Pitted keratolysis

How is the diagnosis of pitted keratolysis made?

Pitted keratolysis is usually diagnosed clinically. Swabs are rarely required. However, the causative organisms may be identified from the pitted lesions and cultured on brain heart infusion agar.

Skin scrapings are often taken to exclude fungal infection. Wood light examination displays a characteristic coral red fluorescence in some cases.  

The diagnosis is sometimes made by skin biopsy [see histopathological features of pitted keratolysis].

Treatment of pitted keratolysis

Pitted keratolysis can be successfully treated with topical antibiotics and antiseptics including:

Treatment of associated hyperhidrosis is essential to prevent recurrence.

How can pitted keratolysis be prevented?

Pitted keratolysis will quickly recur unless the feet are kept dry. The following precautions should be taken to prevent recurrences:



  • Wear boots for as short a period as possible
  • Wear socks which effectively absorb sweat, ie cotton and/or wool
  • Wear open-toed sandals whenever possible
  • Wash feet with soap or antiseptic cleanser twice daily
  • Apply antiperspirant to the feet at least twice weekly
  • Do not wear the same shoes two days in a row — dry them out
  • Do not share footwear or towels with others. 



  • Kaptanoglu AF, Yuksel O, Ozyurt S. Plantar pitted keratolysis: a study from non-risk groups. Dermatol Reports. 2012;4(1):e4. doi:10.4081/dr.2012.e4. PubMed Central
  • Leeyaphan C, Limphoka P, Kiratiwongwan R, Ongsri P, Bunyaratavej S. Randomized, controlled trial testing the effectiveness and safety of 2.5% and 5% benzoyl peroxide for the treatment of pitted keratolysis. J Dermatolog Treat. 2020;1–4. doi:10.1080/09546634.2019.1708244. PubMed
  • Nordstrom KM, McGinley KJ, Cappiello L, Zechman JM, Leyden JJ. Pitted keratolysis. The role of Micrococcus sedentarius. Arch Dermatol. 1987;123(10):1320–5. doi:10.1001/archderm.123.10.1320. PubMed 
  • Tamura BM, Cucé LC, Souza RL, Levites J. Plantar hyperhidrosis and pitted keratolysis treated with botulinum toxin injection. Dermatol Surg. 2004;30(12 Pt 2):1510–14. doi:10.1111/j.1524-4725.2004.30553.x. PubMed
  • Vlahovic TC, Dunn SP, Kemp K. The use of a clindamycin 1%-benzoyl peroxide 5% topical gel in the treatment of pitted keratolysis: a novel therapy. Adv Skin Wound Care. 2009;22(12):564–6. doi:10.1097/01.ASW.0000363468.18117.fe. PubMed

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