Dark elbows & knees: Why it's happening and how to treat it


dark knees

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On a lazy Sunday morning, very few things beat throwing yourself on your tummy on your comfy bed, elbows propping you up while you catch up on that book you’ve been putting off for weeks or the latest episode of “Doctor Who.” But doing so, especially if you are a woman of color, might be harming your skin.

dark elbowsWhen the skin on your elbows, knees and sometimes even ankles looks dark, it’s because a thick, dead skin has built up, which is then aggravated by friction and any pressure you place on those areas. Spend a lot of time sprawled on a carpeted floor watching television? Yep, that’ll do it. It’s easy to just say you won’t do that anymore, but also try to not lean on your elbows while sitting on a chair at work, typing away. And while dark elbows and knees can happen to anyone, regardless of skin color, it’s especially annoying for people with brown skin because the darker your skin tone, the darker your elbows or knees will look.


So what’s the deal?

Elbows and knees have folds in them that make it super convenient for them to get dark — and they can get dark as a result of wearing that sweater that you’ve washed so many times that not even a gallon of fabric softener keeps it from cutting into your elbows every time you lean on them. Not exfoliating enough and getting too much sun can also contribute to dark elbows and knees, as can having dry skin. And of course, leaning on them, pressing them on tables and the arms of a chair, and even flexing them can pile on the buildup of dead skin.


The lowdown

Treating dry skin is one thing. Dealing with dark elbows and knees is quite another, and even if you’re using the best of moisturizers on your dark elbows and knees and calling it a day, moisturizer alone is not going to cut it. Many people swear by lemon — which has been essential to skin care for ages and continues to be. Rubbing lemon halves on your problem areas and rinsing the juice after 10 or 15 minutes might start cutting through the dark spots. You can also mix some lemon juice and baking soda and apply the mixture to your problem areas for the same amount of time.

Follow it up with some gentle exfoliation and you might see a noticeable improvement. But do note the word “gentle” here. Going all Lady Macbeth while trying to out, out that damn spot might actually make things worse. Friction is friction, and if you’re sloughing away with a vengeance, you may as well be dragging them across the scratchiest carpet you can find.

After exfoliating — gently! — moisturize your problem areas with moisturizer that has at least 12% Glycolic AHA. Alpha hydrox might be easy to miss because it’s marketed as a foot cream, but if you look closely, it includes problem areas and actually does help cut through that dead skin. It makes sense, too, when you think about it: The skin on your elbows and knees goes through more wear and tear than other areas of your body, where skin is better protected. The dead skin that builds up in these areas is pretty much like getting calluses on your feet when you’re on them all day or have to walk around for long periods of time.

Of course, if you want to see results, whichever course of action you take — be it making your own scrubs or buying high-end bleaching powders — you’ll have to be consistent. And if you still see little to no improvement, it may be time to go to a dermatologist and discuss whether a combination of a topical steroid and urea cream is worth exploring.