How Does Diabetes Affect the Skin

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We tend to take our skin for granted, trusting that it will always protect us but what happens if we are diabetic?  How does diabetes affect the skin is a topic that I had never understood until now.

First, it is important to understand that human skin is more than just our outer layer. It is actually our largest organ and its’ purpose is multi-functional.

What is our skin’s purpose?

Our skin is responsible for:

  • protecting our body against pathogens
  • protecting us against water loss
  • guarding the underlying bones, muscles, ligaments, and internal organs
  • acting as an insulator and temperature regulator
  • synthesis of vitamin D
  • protecting vitamin B folates

We also know that diabetes affects every part of the body, not just the pancreas.

While anyone can develop skin problems or infections, diabetics may develop them more easily and there are even some skin problems that are specific to diabetics.

When diabetes affects the skin it is often a sign that blood glucose levels are too high. High blood glucose levels are indicative of:

  • undiagnosed diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • an adjustment in diabetes treatment may be necessary

It is time to visit your doctor if you notice any skin problems developing.

General Skin Conditions

Anyone can get a general skin condition but diabetics seem to be more prone to them. These could include:

Bacterial Infections How Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Stye

The most common bacterial infections could be styes, boils, folliculitis (infection of the hair follicle), carbuncles, and infections around the nails.

The inflamed tissue would be hot, red, swollen, and painful.

Your doctor would likely prescribe an antibiotic for treatment.

Doctors believe that good skincare could help prevent most bacterial infections.

Fungal Infections

The most common fungal infections are athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm, and an itchy vaginal infection.

More specific to diabetics would be Candida Albicans which is indicative of itchy rashes of moist, red areas surrounded by tiny blisters and scales usually found under the breasts, around the nails, between fingers and toes, under the foreskin, in the armpits and groin, and the corners of the mouth.


Diabetes can often cause localized itching.

This itching can be caused by a yeast infection, dry skin, or poor circulation.

When poor circulation is the cause the itchiest area may be the lower legs.

Localized itching may be self-treated by less frequent bathing during low humidity, using mild soap with moisturizer, and applying skin moisturizer after bathing.

Skin Conditions Specific to Diabetics

Acanthosis nigricansHow Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Acanthosis nigricans

Acanthosis nigricans usually occurs in extremely overweight people and present as tan or brown raised areas on the side of the neck, armpits, and groin.

It may also occur on the hands, elbows, and knees.

Losing weight is the best treatment but some creams may help the spots look better.

Diabetic dermopathyHow Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - diabetic dermopathy

Diabetic dermopathy is caused by changes in the small blood vessels.

Dermopathy may look like light brown, scaly patches that may be oval or circular.

They are commonly mistaken for age spots.

It most often occurs on the front of both legs although in some cases the legs are not affected at all.

Dermopathy patches are not itchy, painful, or open. It is harmless and does not require treatment.

Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum(NLD)How Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum

Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum is another disease that may be caused by changes to the blood vessels. This also causes spots quite similar to diabetic dermopathy but these are fewer, larger and deeper.

NLD often starts as a dull, raised area and in time it resembles a shiny scar with a violet border. The blood vessel below the skin may become more visible and sometimes it may be itchy or even painful, especially if the spots crack open.

Necrobiosis lipoidica diabeticorum is rare and more prevalent in adult women. NLD does not require treatment unless the spots open up. Always seek medical advice for open sores if you are a diabetic.

Allergic reactions

It is fairly common to develop an allergic skin reaction in response to insulin or diabetes pills.

If you think you may be having an allergic reaction see your doctor.

Look for rashes, depressions, or bumps at the sites where insulin is injected.

Bullosis Diabeticorum (Diabetic blisters)How Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Diabetic blisters

While rare, diabetics can erupt in blisters on the backs of fingers, hands, feet, toes, legs, and forearms.

These sores look very similar to burn blisters and often occur in people with diabetic neuropathy.

They can be large but are painless and have no redness around them.

They usually heal without treatment within three weeks.

The only treatment is to control blood glucose levels.

Eruptive xanthomatosisHow Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Eruptive xanthomatosis

Eruptive xanthomatosis is also caused by uncontrolled diabetes. It presents a firm, yellow, pea-like enlargement in the skin. Each bump has a red halo and may be itchy. It most often occurs on the backs of hands, feet, arms, legs, and buttocks.

This disorder more commonly occurs in young men with type 1 diabetes. The patient often has high cholesterol and fat levels in the blood. Similar to diabetic blisters, these bumps will disappear when blood glucose levels are better controlled.

Digital sclerosis

How Does Diabetes Affect the Skin - Digital sclerosisThose with diabetes sometimes develop tight, thick, waxy skin on the backs of their hands.

Sometimes it can appear on the toes or forehead.

The finger joints may become stiff and not move as well as they should.

It is very rare for knees, ankles, or elbows to get stiff.

This condition only affects those with type 1 diabetes and again the only treatment is to control blood glucose levels.

Disseminated granuloma annulareHow does diabetes affect the skin - disseminated granuloma annulare

A person with disseminated granuloma annulare will have sharply defined ring or arc-shaped raised areas of the skin. These rashes are most often on fingers or ears (areas far away from the trunk) although occasionally it can occur on the trunk. They can be red, red-brown, or skin-coloured. See your doctor if you notice any rashes like this. Some medications can help clear this up.

Final Thoughts

Whether you have diabetes or not good skincare can help prevent the development of skin problems. For the diabetic, this is even more important especially since your diabetes does affect your entire body.

Simple things you do are:

  • Follow your diabetes treatment plan to control your blood glucose levels. People with high blood sugar levels tend to have drier skin and a decreased ability to fend off harmful bacteria.
  • Keep the skin clean and dry
  • Avoid excessively hot showers and baths. If your skin is dry refrain from using bubble baths as these will dry the skin more. Moisturizing soaps may be beneficial. Apply lotion after bathing but not between toes.
  • Prevent dry skin. Avoid scratching dry skin as this can open it up to infection. Moisturize to prevent chapping especially if exposed to cold or windy weather.
  • Treat cuts right away. Wash minor cuts with soap and water. Only use an antibiotic cream or ointment if your doctor has recommended it. Cover minor cuts with sterile gauze. Seek medical treatment for major cuts or burns.
  • During cold, dry months maintain higher humidity in your home. Bath less frequently if possible during these weather conditions.
  • Use only mild shampoos and soap products.
  • refrain from using feminine hygiene sprays
  • see a dermatologist(skin specialist) if you develop skin conditions you can’t solve yourself
  • Practice daily foot care. Check feet thoroughly for cuts and scratches. Wear comfortable, closed-toed, properly fitting shoes. Always check shoes for foreign objects before inserting your foot.

Have you noticed any skin changes or problems since your diagnosis? If so seek and follow your doctor’s advice.

I am not in any way a medical practitioner. Please do not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. We only share our experiences. We are affiliates, this means that if you purchase something from a link or ad on this site we may receive a small commission. This in no way affects the price you pay. 

What tips do you have for preventing skin problems whether diabetic or not?

You can leave your questions in the comment section below. I will respond.


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